ALEXANDRIA, Va. — U.S. troops are re-doubling their efforts to advise, assist and equip Iraqi Security Forces in advance of the December 2011 deadline for all American troops to leave the country, Army Brig. Gen. Jeffrey S. Buchanan said Wednesday. Buchanan, the director of strategic effects in Baghdad, said the advise and assist mission in Iraq has gone well since the end of the American combat mission in August.
But more needs to be done, he said.
“We’ve got a lot to accomplish and we are very much geared to getting everything we can do before American forces depart,” Buchanan said.
U.S. Forces-Iraq officials are looking at many different options for the next year, he said. “The big idea is we want to get as much done as we can,” Buchanan said. “We don’t want to start withdrawing forces and closing bases now because that’s going to limit what we do.”
American forces will probably stay at the current strength through early summer, Buchanan said. The troops are working to transition the police training capability, for example, to the State Department in advance of the withdrawal.
Buchanan said the just-under 50,000 American forces now in Iraq also have two other missions to fulfill: conducting partnered counterterrorism operations and working the transition of the mission in the country to a State Department lead. Terrorism is still a problem in Iraq, with al-Qaida trying to stage a comeback, he said.
“They have no support among the people,” the general said. “Their attacks continue. Al-Qaida is determined and they have never changed. But they have been degraded through the combined efforts of the Iraqi and American security forces.”
Al-Qaida cannot attract money, Iraqis or foreign fighters to their cause, Buchanan said. Iraqi security forces have the security lead in the country and daily attack levels are at their lowest since the beginning of Operation Iraqi Freedom in March 2003.
“The ISF continues to do a good job and they continue to improve,” Buchanan said.
Two agreements govern the relationship between the United States and Iraq, the general said. The first is the security agreement signed in 2008. Under that, all American troops will leave Iraq by the end of next year.
“U.S. Forces Iraq’s mission will be completed and our troop presence will go to zero,” Buchanan said. “But this isn’t really an end, it’s a transition point based on the other agreement we signed: the Strategic Framework Agreement.”
That agreement looks at the long-term relationship between the United States and Iraq in agriculture, economic development, governance, education, science and technology and security. The general called the effort a chance to build an “enduring partnership” that will outlast the presence of American forces in the nation.
Morale of American forces in Iraq “is pretty high,” the general said. “They are making a difference, and you can see the effects of that difference day to day.” Service members who served in Iraq earlier — especially in 2006 and 2007 — see an amazing change in the country, he said.
“I feel very optimistic about where the Iraqis are headed, because I know where they’re coming from,” Buchanan said. “I’ve seen their growth in quality and quantity over the years. They are getting better and better. We’ve still got a lot of work to do. We’re not done.”