According to Secretary Gates, "This continuing drawdown is possible because of the success achieved in reducing violence and building Iraqi security capacity."
However, Republican Rep. John M. McHugh of New York questioned the sustainability of security improvements and building up Iraqi security capacity while drawing down U.S. forces. He cited a July 2008 GAO report that finds significant deficiencies in the training of Iraqi Security Forces (ISF), including a shortage of U.S. personnel. According to the GAO, the U.S. military has failed to develop a comprehensive strategy to solve the shortage of manpower for training the ISF. Admiral Mullen said plans for comprehensive training are being addressed and that the root problem is a need for more personnel to train private security contractors (PSCs).
Secretary Gates also expressed caution about the rate of future troop withdrawals. Covering the hearing, today's Washington Post reports:
Another challenge to ensuring sustainable security in Iraq is the flagging development of Iraqi institutions and civil society, something Secretary Gates acknowledged in his testimony. However, when a Representative pointedly asked if Iraq is "coup-proof", Gates failed to mention the role that a strong civilian government and civil society can play in preventing a military takeover or return to widespread sectarian violence. Instead, he highlighted the Government of Iraq's reappointment of new military leaders as helping to ensure that all factions of Iraqi society feel represented and protected.
Despite their focus on Afghanistan, both Gates and Mullen said that the situation in Iraq remains uncertain and could require more forces in the future. "I worry that the great progress" by U.S. and Iraqi forces could override caution and lead to an excessively rapid drawdown, said Gates, noting that U.S. commanders in Iraq remain concerned about "many challenges and potential for reversals." In sum, he said, "we should expect to be involved in Iraq for years to come, although in changing and increasingly limited ways."
Indeed, writing "How to Leave a Stable Iraq" for Foreign Affairs, coauthors Stephen Biddle at the Council on Foreign Relations and Michael O'Hanlon and Kenneth Pollack at the Brookings Institution highlight improvements in the ISF's composition and leadership.
Of course, making Iraq both "coup proof" and peaceful will require additional democratic safeguards and a more holistic approach to building security. For example, consider the stabilizing role of humanitarian relief and protection for 4.8 million displaced Iraqis (nearly 17% of Iraq's entire population). Large numbers of Iraqi middle-class professionals -- desperately needed for Iraq's recovery and development -- have fled to Syria, Jordan, and other nearby countries. In addition, women, young children, and the elderly -- all of whom are the least likely to perpetrate violence -- are disproportionately represented among the dispossessed. By working to ensure the survival of all of these displaced Iraqis and by creating conditions in Iraq that allow many to eventually return -- voluntarily, in safety, and with dignity -- the U.S. and international community can support a 'virtuouse cycle' that leads to lasting peace and prosperity in Iraq.
Sectarian, corrupt, incompetent, and turncoat officers have been removed. Aggressive recruitment and new amnesty and de-Baathification ordinances have led to increases in both the number of Sunnis, especially in the officer corps, and the number of people with prior military experience in the forces. Now, about 80 percent of the Iraqi army's officers and 50 percent of its rank and file are veterans of Saddam Hussein's military, and one of the most capable units in the Iraqi army, the First Brigade of the First Infantry Division, is 60 percent Sunni
Likewise, strengthening civilian institutions, improving public education, expanding access to health care, providing reliable electricity, and supporting the development of a vibrant Iraqi middle class are essential elements of healthy democracies.
To phase out the heavy U.S. military presence in Iraq responsibly, safely and with the careful consideration that was lacking at the war's inception, a re-balancing of U.S. policy on Iraq is needed. Congress ought to hold additional hearings to assess the U.S. administration's response to the humanitarian crisis in Iraq and the region, and what more can be done to stabilize Iraq through effective humanitarian relief and development assistance.
Photo Caption: Joint Chiefs Chairman Michael Mullen testifies before a House panel on developing security conditions and U.S. military requirements in Iraq and Afghanistan (Source: Washington Post, 9/10/08, photo by Mark Wilson, Getty Images).