WASHINGTON - Despite President Barack Obama's statement at Camp LeJeune, North Carolina Feb. 27 that he had "chosen a timeline that will remove our combat brigades over the next 18 months," a number of Brigade Combat Teams (BCTs), which have been the basic U.S. Army combat unit in Iraq for six years, will remain in Iraq after that date under a new non-combat label.
A spokesman for Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, Lt. Col. Patrick S. Ryder, told IPS Tuesday that "several advisory and assistance brigades" would be part of a U.S. command in Iraq that will be "re-designated" as a "transition force headquarters" after August 2010.
But the "advisory and assistance brigades" to remain in Iraq after that date will in fact be the same as BCTs, except for the addition of a few dozen officers who would carry out the advice and assistance missions, according to military officials involved in the planning process.
Gates has hinted that the withdrawal of combat brigades will be accomplished through an administrative sleight of hand rather than by actually withdrawing all the combat brigade teams. Appearing on Meet the Press Mar. 1, Gates said the "transition force" would have "a very different kind of mission", and that the units remaining in Iraq "will be characterized differently".
"They will be called advisory and assistance brigades," said Gates. "They won't be called combat brigades."
Obama's decision to go along with the military proposal for a "transition force" of 35,000 to 50,000 troops thus represents a complete abandonment of his own original policy of combat troop withdrawal and an acceptance of what the military wanted all along - the continued presence of several combat brigades in Iraq well beyond mid-2010.
National Security Council officials declined to comment on the question of whether combat brigades were actually going to be left in Iraq beyond August 2010 under the policy announced by Obama Feb. 27.
The term that has been used internally within the Army to designate the units that will form a large part of the "transition force" is not "Advisory and Assistance Brigades" but "Brigades Enhanced for Stability Operations" (BESO).
Lt. Col. Gary Tallman, a spokesman for the Joint Staff, confirmed Monday that BESO will be the Army unit deployed to Iraq for the purpose of the transition force. Tallman said the decision-making process now underway involving CENTCOM and the Army is to determine "the exact composition of the BESO".
But the U.S. Army has already been developing the outlines of the BESO for the past few months. The only change to the existing BCT structure that is being planned is the addition of advisory and assistance skills rather than any reduction in its combat power. The BCT is organized around two or three battalions of motorized infantry but also includes all the support elements, including its own artillery support, needed to sustain the full spectrum of military operations.
Those are permanent features of all variants of the BCT, which will not be altered in the new version to be deployed under a "transition force", according to specialists on the BCT.
They say the only issue on which the Army is still engaged in discussions with field commanders is what standard augmentation a BCT will need for its new mission.
Maj. Larry Burns of the Army Combined Arms Center at Ft. Leavenworth, Kansas, told IPS that Army Chief of Staff Gen. George W. Casey directed the Combined Arms Center, which specializes in Army mission and doctrine, to work on giving the BCTs the capability to carry out a training and advisory assistance mission.
The essence of the BESO variant of the BCTs, according to Burns, is that the Military Transition Teams working directly with Iraqi military units will no longer operate independently but will be integrated into the BCTs.
That development would continue a trend already begun in Iraq in which the BCTs have gradually acquired operational control over the previously independent Military Transition Teams, according to Maj. Robert Thornton of the Joint Center for International and Security Force Assistance at Fort Leavenworth.
Gen. Martin Dempsey, the commander of Army Training and Doctrine Command, has issued Planning Guidance calling for further refinement of the BESO. After further work on the additional personnel requirements, Casey was briefed on the proposed enhancement of the BCT for the second time in a month at a conference of four-star generals on Feb. 18, according to Burns.
Other names for the new variant that were used in recent months but eventually dropped made it explicitly clear that it is simply a slightly augmented BCT. Those names, according to Burns, included "Brigade Combat Team-Security Force Assistance" and "Brigade Combat Team for Stability Operations".
The plan to deploy several augmented BCTs represents the culmination of the strategy of "relabeling" or "remissioning" of BCTs in Iraq that was developed by U.S. military leaders in the wake of the surge of candidate Barack Obama to near-certain victory in the presidential election last year.
Late last year, Gen. David Petraeus, the CENTCOM chief, and Gen. Ray Odierno, the top commander in Iraq, were unhappy with Obama's pledge to withdraw all U.S. combat brigades within 16 months. But military planners quickly hit on the relabeling scheme as a way of avoiding the complete withdrawal of BCTs in an Obama administration.
The New York Times revealed Dec. 4 that Pentagon planners were talking about "relabeling" of U.S. combat units as "training and support" units in a Dec. 4 story, but provided no details. Pentagon planners were projecting that as many as 70,000 U.S. troops would be maintained in Iraq "for a substantial time even beyond 2011".
That report suggested that the strategy envisioned keeping the bulk of the existing BCTs in Iraq as under a new label indicating an advisory and support mission.
Secretary Gates and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Mike Mullen discussed a plan to re-designate U.S. combat troops as support troops at a meeting with Obama in Chicago on Dec. 15, according a report in the Times three days later.
Gates and Mullen reportedly speculated at the meeting on whether Iraqis would permit such "re-labeled" combat forces to remain in Iraqi cities and towns after next June, despite the fact that the U.S.-Iraq withdrawal agreement signed in November 2008 called for all U.S. combat forces to be withdrawn from populated areas by the end of June 2010.
That report suggests that Obama was well aware that giving the Petraeus and Odierno a free hand to determine the composition of a "transition force" of 35,000 to 50,000 troops meant that most combat brigades would remain in Iraq rather than being withdrawn, as he ostensibly promised the U.S. public on Feb. 27.
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.