BAGHDAD (Sept. 1, 2010) — On his way here for the change of command for U.S. forces and to see the U.S. combat mission officially transfer to the civilian-led Operation New Dawn in ceremonies here today, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff paused to take stock of the progress he’s seen in Iraq since he took office in 2007.
“One of the things that I think we have a tendency to forget is how desperate we were in that fight in the pre-surge [period],” Navy Adm. Mike Mullen told reporters during the first travel leg of the trip that brought him here for today’s events. “And I certainly don’t take for granted the progress that we’ve made.”
This year alone, the chairman said, U.S. troop strength in Iraq dropped by 70,000.
“We’ve closed some 500 bases, and … we’ve moved 38,000 pieces of rolling stock out of Iraq,” Mullen said. “When I was there a month ago, I got into a helicopter at the airport to fly over to Camp Victory, and I was just stunned at the cleanliness. I was just stunned that there was so much stuff that wasn’t there that had been there for every trip I’d been on since 2004.
“I was tied up in a roundabout in downtown Baghdad in what I would call some version of normal traffic,” he continued. “We’ve still got a lot of challenges in Iraq, but to go there for this [event] is significant.”
Mullen said U.S. and Iraqi forces and the U.S. Embassy team here share in the credit for that progress, along with Army Gen. Raymond T. Odierno, who relinquishes command of U.S. Forces Iraq today to Army Gen. Lloyd J. Austin III.
“I’ve been very impressed, particularly over the last year, with the accomplishments of the Iraqi security forces,” the chairman said. “They’ve led now for many, many months. … We’ve taken a lot of al-Qaida leadership off the streets in Iraq, [and] they have led those operations.”
Mullen said his biggest concern now is the need for Iraqi political leaders to finish working out their differences and seat a new government.
“In one way, it’s positive that the biggest problems in Iraq are political, because certainly two or three years ago, they weren’t,” he said. “There’s a lot of effort going into standing this government up, and I am hopeful that that will happen in the near future.”
The overall level of violence in Iraq is at its lowest level since 2003, the chairman noted. Some high-profile attacks have continued, he added, “all of which are a concern, but none of which, from everything I can see, come anywhere close to destabilizing the government or the country.”
“So I have confidence in where we are, and in [Iraq’s] ability to withstand the challenges, including security, that are still there,” he said.
Mullen mapped out what awaits the fewer than 50,000 U.S. troops who remain in Iraq.
“We’re now clearly in an ‘advise and assist’ role, and will certainly support the Iraqi security forces in selective, targeted counterterrorist operations,” he said. The mission also includes protecting Americans in Iraq, he added.
“We’ve got a large ‘footprint’ of civilians,” the admiral explained. “We’ve got a very detailed transition plan where our State Department, mostly, and our embassy take over the lead for the mission, and [we’ll] support them and continue in the execution.”
With all U.S. troops scheduled to be out of Iraq by the end of next year, Mullen said, the ability to work out the details of any potential longer-term strategic partnership between the United States and Iraq must wait until a new Iraqi government is in place. Today’s transition, he added, marks a significant point in the U.S. timeline in Iraq.
“Through enormous sacrifices, we have been out in front and led, then co-led, then trained and enabled the Iraqi security forces – some 660,000 now - to lead and to provide for their own security,” Mullen said. “Having the security environment that exists right now has enabled them to have two sets of elections and to stand up a government elected by the people. That’s obviously what they’re doing right now.
“Underpinning this is great potential on the economic side,” he continued, “just because of the resources that they have.”
Mullen said he agrees with Army Gen. David H. Petraeus, now in charge of operations in Afghanistan, who’d previously commanded U.S. Central Command as well as coalition forces in Iraq and Afghanistan, that counterinsurgency wars don’t have a definable end.
“We’re not living in a time where you cross the goal line, you have the signing ceremony and you come home to the tickertape parades,” the chairman said. “Those are the images of wars past, and we’re just not in those kinds of wars right now. That said, when you look at where we were two or three years ago in Iraq versus where we are now, it’s night and day.
“There are many possibilities for the 26 million people who live in Iraq,” he added, “and those possibilities are now up to them. That wasn’t the case before.”