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US Can Handle Afghan Surge

There are enough soldiers and Marines to maintain planned force levels in Iraq and provide enough troops for any potential “surge” of forces to Afghanistan, “whatever the president decides,” said Vice Adm. James Winnefeld, director for strategic plans and policy on the Joint Staff. While the long term “health” of the ground forces could be affected by the need to simultaneously boost troop levels in Iraq and Afghanistan, there are still plenty of troops to pull it off.

There are 120,000 troops still in Iraq, a number that continues to drop in line with withdrawal plans laid out by Iraq commander Gen. Ray Odierno that call for no more than 50,000 American troops there by August. Most of the remaining troops will serve in an advisory capacity.

There are 11 Brigade Combat Teams in Iraq, down from the 20 brigades there during the 2007-2008 surge, along with “lots” of special operations troops and additional support units, Winnefeld said Wednesday at a House Armed Services Committee hearing. Shuttering the many bases and combat outposts there is proceeding ahead of schedule, he said, and there are 35,000 fewer contractors in Iraq today than in January.

However, the Iraqi army and police are “not anywhere near where they need to be” in terms of training and equipment to permit an accelerated withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq, Winnefeld said. They still require extensive American military assistance as serious shortfalls exist in logistics, medical and air support. He said there is still a "long way to go" in improving the Iraqi military before the total withdrawal of American troops, scheduled to take effect by December 2011, according to the Status of Forces Agreement between the two countries.

American advisers closely monitor Iraqi units to ensure there is no overt “sectarian” influence and to prevent them from becoming the repressive “tool” of any political party or individual, said Michele Flournoy, Under Secretary of Defense for Policy, at the HASC hearing. The Iraqi leadership realizes that continued American aid is contingent on their demonstrating the security forces are non-sectarian, she said.

Not surprisingly, at the mostly cordial hearing, nobody brought up a memo written by a one Col. Timothy Reese, member of the command group, Multi-National Division Baghdad, published in The New York Times in July. It rather bluntly said, contra-Flournoy, the Iraqi security forces were hopelessly sectarian and subject to the whims of the dominant Shiite political parties. Reese said the effort to train the Iraqi security forces had reached the point of diminishing returns and that it was time to bring everybody home.

On the matter of bringing the mountains of U.S. equipment home from Iraq, Flournoy said the “vast majority” of the 3.3 million items of equipment in Iraq will be returned to the U.S. or shifted to Afghanistan. Equipment deemed non-essential, such as aged Humvees, tents and generators may be transferred to the Iraqi military.

The Marines have already pulled most of their gear out of Iraq, said Army Lt. Gen. Kathleen Gainey, logistics director for the Joint Staff. The existing depot system in the U.S. that “resets” vehicles and equipment - repairing and refurbishing war worn items - is “sufficient” to handle the flow coming from Iraq, she said.

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