WASHINGTON - President Barack Obama has given military commanders a free hand to determine the size and composition of a residual force in Iraq up to 50,000 troops, apparently including the option of leaving one or more combat brigades or bringing them from the United States, after the August 2010 deadline for the ostensible withdrawal of all combat brigades now in Iraq.
Although the ostensible purpose of the combat brigades remaining in Iraq would be to protect other U.S. troops in the country, they would also provide the kind of combat capability that U.S. commanders have wanted to maintain to deal with a broad range of contingencies.
The fact that the commanders have the option to nullify Obama's pledge to removal all combat brigades raises serious questions about whether he has given up control over his Iraq policy.
Obama declared, in a speech at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina that by Aug. 31, 2010, "[O]ur combat mission in Iraq will end". But he confirmed earlier indications from administration officials that the residual force would be from 35,000 to 50,000 troops - far higher than Democratic congressional leaders had previously been led to expect by Obama.
Obama did not refer to the possibility that combat brigades would remain in the country after Aug. 31, 2010, but Defense Secretary Robert Gates admitted as much in a question and answer session with reporters after the speech.
Obama also stated, "I intend to remove all U.S. troops from Iraq by the end of 2011." But Gates, and the top commander in Iraq, Gen. Ray Odierno, have both indicated on the record that they wanted to keep U.S. troops in Iraq even after that date, based on the assumption that the Iraqi government will renegotiate the Status of Forces agreement.
NBC News Pentagon correspondent Jim Miklaszewski reported just before Obama's speech that discussions had taken place in the Kirkuk area between some U.S. military commanders and Iraqis "to establish what could end up as a permanent air base, U.S. air base, in Kirkuk."
Obama's claim that the U.S. combat mission will end in August 2010 raises the question whether he will call a halt to combat patrols by U.S. personnel embedded with Iraqi units. The sweeping concession made to CENTCOM commander Gen. David Petraeus and Iraq commander Gen. Odierno on the residual force suggests that he will not demand the end of such operations by U.S. troops.
The freedom granted to Odierno and Petraeus on the residual force overshadows his concession to the generals and Gates in accepting the recommendation for 19-month timetable for withdrawing combat brigades.
Obama had appeared to be leaning toward the 16-month withdrawal of combat brigades he had pledged during the campaign as recently as a Jan. 21 White House meeting with Gates and Petraeus.
Obama provided no further details on the residual force. According to the Washington Post report published Friday, two unnamed "senior officials" - one of whom was presumably Secretary Gates - told Congressional leaders Thursday that Obama would let commanders decide not only the exact schedule of withdrawal of combat brigades but the size of the residual force.
In a teleconference with reporters Friday afternoon, Gates appeared to confirm indirectly that he and field commanders have discussed either keeping combat brigades in Iraq but calling them "non-combat" forces or actually sending new combat brigades to Iraq from the United States during the drawdown of the brigades now in Iraq.
A reporter asked Gates, "You have said they're not going to be combat brigades, but are you going to take combat brigades that are in the United States and sort of rename them, redesignate them, or are you going to create new units for this specific mission?"
Gates first sidestepped the question entirely. "[W]ith respect to the 35,000 to 50,000," he said, "I think that that's a question probably better directed at General Odierno." But he then added, "[I]n terms of whether those are new units or whether they are re-missioned units that are already there, I think remains to be seen."
CBS News Pentagon correspondent David Martin, reflecting the leaks from Pentagon officials, reported Feb. 24 that the residual force would be organized in "training and assistance brigades" that would be capable of conducting combat operations and calling air strikes from carrier or land-based aircraft. In a comment to CBS News Political Hotsheet, Martin said the units would be "fully combat capable", suggesting that they would be drawn from combat brigades.
Some leading Senate and House Democrats were clearly taken by surprise by the size of the residual force to which Obama had agreed. On the Rachel Maddow Show Thursday, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said, "I don't know what the justification is for 50,000, a presence of 50,000 troops in Iraq."
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and Sen. Carl Levin, chair of the Armed Services Committee, both indicated that the figure was higher than they had expected. Sen. Patty Murray of Washington, said, "I do think we have to look carefully at the numbers that are there and do it as quickly as we can."
Defeated Republican presidential candidate John McCain, on the other hand, sounded like a loyal supporter of Obama's decision, saying it is "reasonable" and that he is "cautiously optimistic that the plan that is laid out by the president can lead to success."
Obama even took a step toward committing himself to reversing the whole withdrawal policy if violence in Iraq resumes anytime before the end of 2011. Rep. John McHugh, the ranking Republican on the House Armed Services Committee, said Obama had assured him that he would "revisit" the withdrawal plan "if the situation on the ground deteriorates and violence increases."
The decision on Iraq policy announced by Obama Friday ended a four-month period of maneuvering by Gates, Odierno and CENTCOM commander Gen. David Petraeus aimed at getting Obama to change his Iraq policy.
Gates and the two generals had wanted to keep a large residual force, including combat brigades, in Iraq not only through 2011 but for at least another four years beyond that. They had presented a 23-month draw-down plan to Obama at the Jan. 21 White House meeting as an alternative to his 16-month drawdown plan.
Later, they settled on 19 months as an acceptable compromise. It is now clear, however, that the primary objective of the trio was to get Obama to approve complete control by the commanders over the residual force up to 50,000.
The Washington Post reported that the senior administration officials who briefed Congressional leaders Thursday said that Obama's "senior civilian and military advisers" - meaning Gates and Joint Chiefs chairman Adm. Mike Mullen - had recommended both the 19-month drawdown plan and the size of the residual force.
The Post reported the "senior officials" as suggesting that the reason for both recommendations was to avoid "jeopardizing Iraq's still-fragile security". However, a source who was close to Obama during the campaign and maintains ties to his advisers said Obama's acceptance of the 19-month plan was to "defuse the conflict with the Pentagon".
Not mentioned in either Obama's speech or briefings by Gates is the question of whether U.S. pilots and planes will be part of the residual force after August 2010. The silence on that matter suggests that U.S. airpower will continue to participate in combat, despite the supposed end of the U.S. combat mission.
Gareth Porter is an investigative historian and journalist specialising in U.S. national security policy. The paperback edition of his latest book, "Perils of Dominance: Imbalance of Power and the Road to War in Vietnam", was published in 2006.