Iraq War Costs May Mark Shift In U.S. Approach

By: AP
By: AP

In the final days of the U.S. war in Iraq, the outlook for America's military entanglements is markedly different from the confusing, convulsive first days.

Early on Iraq looked, to many, like one in a string of big conflicts in a "war on terror."

That was the view of John Abizaid when the now-retired Army general led U.S. forces in Iraq in 2003-04. At a U.S. base in northern Iraq one day in early 2004, Abizaid told soldiers preparing to return home that he hoped they would remain in uniform and keep building combat experience.

Asked by an Associated Press reporter why he had made that pitch, Abizaid said, "I think the country is going to face more of these (ground wars) in the years ahead."

That was a widely accepted, and often dreaded, view at the time.

Now, with the last American troops set to depart by year's end, Iraq seems more likely to signal an end to such long and enormously costly undertakings in the name of preventing another terrorist attack on U.S. soil — at least under the administration of President Barack Obama. He opposed the Iraq war and has declared that "the tides of war are receding."

With Mr. Obama also pledging to end the U.S. combat role in Afghanistan within three years, the military's focus is turning to places such as Yemen and Somalia.

There, the approach is different. Aerial drones, proxy forces and small teams of U.S. commandos are the preferred formula for containing the Islamic extremists who would plot terrorist attacks against the U.S.

Libya, too, has so far been a case for limited U.S. military intervention. The U.S. cleared the sky ahead of a NATO-led air campaign to protect civilians without putting any troops on the ground.

It took about eight months and cost the U.S. about $1.1 billion to achieve the Libyan rebels' goal of toppling Col. Muammar Qaddafi.

The potential for bigger conflicts persists in places such as Pakistan, whose growing arsenal of nuclear weapons sets it apart from other potential hot spots.

Iran is a major worry, too, in light of its suspected drive to build a nuclear bomb and its proclaimed goal of wiping out Israel. But a U.S. invasion of Iran, on a scale like Iraq, seems highly unlikely for now.

There are other troublesome security challenges facing the U.S., including in Asia where China is expanding its military and asserting its influence.

But the Obama approach — not unique, but distinctive in comparison to that of his predecessor, President George W. Bush — is to try to prevent festering security problems from growing into full-blown crises.

The U.S. military can play a role in those cases without being called on to invade and depose a government.

Robert Gates captured this idea in a speech last winter to Army cadets at the U.S. Military Academy in which he said it would be unwise to ever fight another war like Iraq or Afghanistan.

"In my opinion, any future defense secretary who advises the president to again send a big American land army into Asia or into the Middle East or Africa should `have his head examined,' as General MacArthur so delicately put it," Gates said.

Even with the Iraq exit in sight, the U.S. military is unlikely to wash its hands of the problems it will leave behind after nearly nine years of fighting. Wars don't end that neatly, and it is yet to be seen whether U.S. troops take on new missions in Iraq in 2012 to keep the country on track.

President Obama is ending the U.S. role in the Iraq war, but that does not necessarily mean the war itself is ending.

Al Qaeda in Iraq remains. Ethnic and sectarian tensions persist. Chaos could again descend upon the country, testing the resilience of Iraqis who suffered enormously under Saddam Hussein and again during the U.S. war.

Even after the U.S. declares an end to its presence in Iraq in December, about 157 U.S. service personnel are expected to remain, working out of the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad under Army Lt. Gen. Robert Caslen.

Their job will be to oversee security assistance to the Iraqi government, as similar embassy contingents do in many other Persian Gulf countries and beyond.

About 760 private contractors working for the State Department will help the Iraqis field new military equipment purchased from the U.S. and give them initial training on that equipment. But that is not the depth and scale of training that many U.S. military officers believe the Iraqis need.

On his flight to Indonesia on Friday, U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta told reporters that negotiations with Iraq on future training possibilities will begin later.

If such talks are held, they likely would start either when Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki visits Washington in December or after the end of the year, according to a senior U.S. defense official familiar with the discussions.

The officer spoke Sunday on condition that he not be identified because the issue of possible future U.S. training is highly sensitive.

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  • by Ken on Oct 24, 2011 at 10:05 AM
    Yeah but it's more inspiring to believe they are fighting for us. It's a lot like watching buildings exploding but wanting to believe that they collapsed. Denial is a wonderful thing.
  • by Nath Location: Colo Spgs on Oct 24, 2011 at 09:00 AM
    General Abizaid is right on one thing, the U.S. is going to face more Mideast "wars" in the future. We are the UN's enforcer, which we have been since the UN was formed, we have toppled despots in Egypt, Libya, and soon in some other Arab countries. What those despots are being replaced by are Islamic Fundamentalists affilliated with the Muslim Brotherhood or Al Qaeda. Tunisia just voted for an Islamic Fundamentalist leader, Egypt is headed that way and already, attacks on Coptic Christians have increased there. Libya is going to be an internal war zone for years to come as various factions clash for control or survival. Where will we unconstitutionally intervene next? Syria? Pakistan, and have Afghanistan turn against us as Karzi has stated? Lebanon - again? Don't forget Uganda, where we are now sending 100 troops as "instructors" to the regime that is as bad as the rebel forces fighting them. Or, there is the real looney bin hotbed over there - Iran.
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