BAQUBA — The exit of American forces from Iraqi cities on Tuesday brought the six-year conflict closer to an end. But with the United States planning to maintain the same troop strength in Iraq into at least the beginning of next year, many are wondering what exactly all those troops will do.
The agreement has officially shifted U.S. forces, which number about 130,000, to an "advise and assist" mission. Combat forces will now focus their time on training Iraqi counterparts and carrying out reconstruction projects, in addition to joint patrols in rural areas.
U.S. forces will have to adjust to their limited access to cities, a more collaborative role with Iraqi forces and more advisory-focused missions instead of combat — changes they acknowledge may require some patience.
Many units began adopting the new regulations a few weeks ago to be better prepared for the official shift. The challenges they have faced offer a clue to what the rest of the forces will now deal with.
The adjustment period has proven frustrating at times, said U.S. Army Capt. John Atwell, commander of Black Heart Company, 2-8 Field Artillery battalion.
When his platoons arrived at Iraqi bases to conduct joint operations, Iraqi leaders often told them that they had nothing planned. While U.S. forces prefer to patrol, Iraqi forces often rely more on manning static checkpoints.
“I’ve got to get out there and get things done, but it’s difficult because I’ve got to go through them and they’re unreceptive,” said Captain Atwell, who thinks this is a step in the right direction despite the hurdles. “It’s a change of mindset from coalition forces leading the Iraqi security forces in the counterinsurgency fight to Iraqi security forces leading the counterinsurgency fight.”
U.S. forces can no longer enter cities unless they are invited by Iraqi authorities and have an Iraqi escort. In rural areas, most patrols will be joint American-Iraqi missions.
In the past, U.S. forces used to arrive at an Iraqi military base, collect local soldiers and conduct a U.S.-planned mission. Now Iraqi forces are deciding on mission objectives.
This leaves U.S. forces to work around Iraqi constraints. Many Iraqi security forces, for example, have a limited budget and cannot afford much fuel. If a U.S. unit wants to enter a city for a non-emergency reason, such as a meeting with a local official, the Iraqi military or police may refuse the escort request because of a lack of fuel. U.S. commanders are trying to work around this by potentially providing fuel to the Iraqis, but they are still working out the logistics.
Lt. Col. Shawn Reed, commander of the 1-5 Infantry battalion which was previously responsible for much of Baquba, said many have portrayed the shift as relegating thousnads of soliders to bases, but he doubts that would be a likely outcome. “Number one, we know how dangerous that can be, and number two, while we’re here, there’s still a lot of work to be done and that can be achieved even though we can’t go into the cities.”
With a slower mission pace, many units have begun conducting refresher courses for their soldiers on base, practicing everything from room clearing to weapons maintenance.
“We would never let it get to where there’s too much downtime,” said Capt. Dave Plummer, the operations officer for 1-5 Infantry battalion.
While the rank and file of the U.S. military is involved in training Iraqi security forces, the advisory portion of the mission will arguably keep those at the top much busier. For those on the bottom of the totem pole, it is likely to mean more missions providing security while their commanders are in meetings, missions that combat soldiers traditionally regard as boring.
"The pace is slowing down compared to our last tour,” said Staff Sgt. Nicolas Chrabot, a soldier in the 3-21 Infantry battalion. “It shows people that they’re capable of taking control of their own country, [but] every infantrymen wants to be in the fight.”
U.S. officials say while there may be a brief lull in activity immediately after June 30, within several weeks their troops will be just as busy as before.
“I’m not going leave here half stepping. I’m going to leave here going full bore,” said Col. Burt Thompson, commander of the 1st Stryker Brigade Combat Team. “Right now full bore is described as full bore in my partnership with Iraqi security forces, my support to civil capacity — read the governance — and to set conditions for the next brigade coming in here.”
Read more on the Iraq pullout: