As the commander of U.S. ground forces in Iraq, Army Lt. Gen. Charles H. Jacoby Jr. will play a key role in making the assessments on which the U.S. military will base its final decision on whether to withdraw all combat forces from Iraq by August, the goal set by President Obama. After that, 50,000 U.S. troops will remain to help with training and logistics until the end of 2011.
The current timetable calls for Army Gen. Ray Odierno, the top commander, to make a recommendation on withdrawal 60 days after crucial Iraqi elections due to take place Jan. 16.
Amid growing concerns that the vote may be delayed by Iraqi political disputes, and in the wake of the devastating Oct. 25 bombings that killed 155 people in downtown Baghdad, Jacoby sat down with The Times to talk about factors that will influence the decision.
Are you concerned that the elections on which your withdrawal timetable is based may be delayed? The Iraqi parliament is deadlocked over an election law, even though the deadline has long since passed.
This parliamentary election is a decisive point in the history of Iraq’s democracy, and it’s also very important to the United States. We have a stake in their success. Iraq has had increasingly better elections over time. Of course we look forward to these elections. And so we’re very concerned that we’re past the date that the Iraqis wanted to have an election law, and that every day that goes by eats into the established date for the election. Iraq has the opportunity to demonstrate that it has a viable and credible democracy, and can be a model for the region. There’s lots of opportunity here and we don’t want to miss these opportunities by having this election drift.
Would an election delay also delay the plan to withdraw all U.S. combat forces by August 2010?
We do not think we are at the point where we are off our plan, but of course we are going to watch this very carefully. Any decision to vary from the plan is a policy decision that won’t take place here. It’s too soon to say whether a potential delay in the election is a potential delay in the withdrawal.
What is the minimum time you need after the election to get all the combat troops out by August?
We have it well within our capability to compress or expand. I would just say, obviously, the longer we move to the right [in terms of the timeline], the harder it gets, from a logistics standpoint. But we’re not at that point where we have to make decisions.
So there is some wiggle room within the timetable?
The security agreement [between Iraq and the United States] stipulates end of 2011 that we withdraw all our forces. It is our strategy that we’ll be down to 50,000 by August 2010, not connected to the security agreement. We have decision points along the way where we can adjust if we’re told to. My boss Gen. Odierno will, as the year unfolds, make recommendations. He’ll base those on conditions, and the election is very important to us.
What kind of conditions will you be looking at? We recently had a horrific bombing in downtown Baghdad that killed 155 people. Would more events like that affect Gen. Odierno’s decision?
High-profile attacks like we saw on Oct. 25 are very troubling because of the suffering they bring, and because they’re indicative of a residual capability among terrorists who have a mission to discredit the government of Iraq, directly hurt the people of Iraq and discredit the Iraqi security forces. So they do play a role in the overall assessment we make of security. I will tell you, in general there are many good things to point to in terms of overall security. I do see that this attack represents a targeting strategy of the terrorists, who are trying to get maximum benefit with the least expenditure of effort. So we see the phenomenon of overall attacks going down, but the pain and suffering, and the effect created by a single attack like Oct. 25, going up. So we will continue to work with the Iraqi security forces to put pressure on the remaining members of the terrorist networks. I believe the Iraqi security forces have reacted in a positive manner to these attacks.
Do you anticipate an increase in violence around the election?
I think we should expect the adversaries of Iraq to use this period of time as we approach the election, and even during the time period we seat the government. They can get maximum exposure and opportunity to create a negative effect, so I think we should expect them to test the Iraqi security forces.
What is the current troop strength in Iraq and what will it be for the election?
117,000. It’ll be close to that.
Do you need 117,000 troops going into the election, given that U.S. troops are no longer in the cities and some of them are sitting on their bases?
Some people might say we’re doing more with less. I would say we’re doing different with less. We are not doing counterinsurgency in the cities anymore. We are doing partnered operations throughout the belts around the major cities and in the vicinity of the borders. We’re doing a lot of work on civil capacity development and we provide enabling support to Iraqi security forces, to include, when requested, helping them in the urban areas with aerial support and reconnaissance, medical logistics and engineering. It’s presence with a purpose. [There’s] training going on at every level with the Iraqi security forces. It is a very critical and important role.