Reporting from Besmaya, Iraq — Iraq will need U.S. military support for up to another decade to defend its borders because the Iraqi army won't be ready to guard the country when American troops leave at the end of 2011, according to U.S. and Iraqi commanders.
Commanders say they are reasonably confident in the Iraqi security forces' ability to keep order while facing insurgents or other internal threats. But when it comes to their capacity to protect against attacks from other nations, it is inconceivable that the Iraqi army will be able to stand alone by the time U.S. troops go home, said Lt. Gen. Michael Barbero, commander of the U.S. military training program in Iraq.
Almost certainly, he said, there will have to be some form of continued U.S. military presence beyond 2011 — a tough sell for Americans eager to see a rapid withdrawal — to protect against external threats and to provide the training necessary to eventually bring the Iraqi army up to scratch.
The gravest concern may be Iraq's inability to defend its airspace in a region bristling with missiles and fighter planes as well as longstanding jealousies and a history of wars involving border disputes. The Iraqi government placed its first order for 18 U.S. F-16 fighter jets in March, but the earliest they're expected to arrive is 2013.
"I would say we're five years into a 10-15 year program," said Brig. Gen. Scott Hanson, who heads the U.S. mission in charge of training the Iraqi air force. "We're on a glide path, but we're not in the final stages of approach."
An Iraqi Ministry of Defense strategy document projects that Iraq won't be capable of defending its borders until 2020, said the chief of staff of the Iraqi armed forces, Gen. Babakir Zebari.
"In general, Iraqi soldiers and officers would like the American forces to stay in Iraq until they're capable of doing the job 100%," he said. "Not a huge force, just three or four bases."
U.S. officials won't give numbers, saying it will be up to the U.S. and Iraqi governments to negotiate the form and size of any future troop presence. The current security agreement obligates all U.S. forces to leave Iraq by the end of 2011, and the Iraqi government would have to request a new agreement if it wanted any to stay.
With so many uncertainties ahead, it is impossible to predict whether U.S. forces would stay beyond the deadline, analysts say. The issue is politically sensitive in both Washington and Baghdad. Much will depend on what the future Iraqi government looks like; one that is led by close allies of Iran would be unlikely to request continued U.S. military assistance.
Also in question is America's likely appetite for a long- term troop presence, and the funding that would entail. The Pentagon is appealing a Senate decision to slash by half its $2-billion request for equipment for the Iraqi army in 2011.
The issue of the ongoing U.S. military presence in Iraq has so far received little public attention either in Washington or Baghdad. The Obama administration's Iraq policy is currently focused on fulfilling the president's pledge to bring about the "responsible" drawdown of troops to 50,000 by Aug. 31, and end the war. In Baghdad, there is no proper government, and energies are consumed these days by the struggle to form a new one.
Domestic challenges from a potential revival of the Sunni Arab insurgency, well-armed Shiite Muslim militias and tensions between the political factions still pose the biggest overall threat to Iraq's long-term stability, U.S. officials say.
But many Iraqis also fear their country's vulnerability to the ambitions of well-armed nations in the region.
"If America withdraws its forces and one of the neighboring countries causes problems, then we're going to have a problem," Zebari said.
In a harbinger of what may lie ahead, Turkish and Iranian troops recently crossed Iraq's northern border in pursuit of Kurdish rebels. Iranian troops have remained there since June, building a small fort just inside Iraqi territory. In December, Iranian troops occupied an Iraqi oil well in the south, triggering popular outrage but little action from the Iraqi government.
"There appears to have been an appalling lack of foresight on the part of American military planners," said Ted Galen Carpenter, a national security expert at the Washington-based Cato Institute, who believes the U.S. will have to maintain a substantial military presence well beyond 2011 if Iraq is not to risk becoming a trigger for regional instability. "What amazes me is that policymakers didn't seem to think this through when they decided to remove Iraq as a geostrategic player. I'm not sure what they were calculating."
U.S. military officials say they are acutely aware of the shortfall in Iraq's defensive capabilities.