Obama's Iraq Pullout Plan: An O.K. from Anbar

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Tyler Hill / AFP

Sergeant Daniel Leach radios other Marines during an operation in Anbar province on June 11, 2008

As President Barack Obama prepares to green-light a plan to withdraw most U.S. combat troops from Iraq within 18 months, he'll face skepticism from some military commanders who fear the withdrawal may be too hasty to maintain the country's recent security gains. But the President ought to be reassured by the assessment of Marine Major General John Kelly, who just completed a 13-month tour as the top U.S. commander in Anbar province.

Late in the summer of 2006, the top Marine intelligence officer in Iraq cabled his superiors at the Pentagon that the war was essentially lost in Anbar; his dire assessment soon surfaced on the front page of the Washington Post. "The prospects for securing that country's western Anbar province are dim," the newspaper said, summarizing the report. "There is almost nothing the U.S. military can do to improve the political and social situation there." One anonymous official who read the report flatly told the paper "the United States has lost in Anbar." (See pictures of the Anbar Awakening movement.)

Kelly said on Tuesday that "the war could be over" — not because the U.S. had lost, but because it had won. "All of Iraq is doing pretty well," Kelly added, characterizing the limited violence now occurring there as practically "meaningless."

The key to the turnaround in Anbar, said Kelly, wasn't the 30,000-strong U.S. surge, which sent relatively few reinforcements to Anbar. Instead, the local population — mostly Sunnis who had largely supported the insurgents — grew so fed up with the brutality of the al-Qaeda element that it rose up against the insurgency. Tribal sheiks who had once fought against U.S. forces began to work with the Marines in a tacit "the enemy of my enemy is my friend" alliance. "If the objective is zero violence in the nation of Iraq, it's impossible," Kelly said. "But if the objective is [to reduce] violence [to a level] manageable by the Iraqi police and the Iraqi army, we're all but there throughout most of the country."

Kelly's view echoes the consensus within the U.S. military as the Pentagon ponders how to implement Obama's order to withdraw most combat troops — about half of the 142,000 U.S. soldiers now in Iraq — by August 2010. In the tug-of-war between on-ground commanders who would like to go slower and their superiors in Washington who need more troops for Afghanistan, the President's timetable splits the difference. In fact, the Pentagon provided Obama with three options: the 16-month timetable he embraced during the campaign; the 19-month option he is expected to announce this week (dated from Obama's first day in office, or 18 months from now) and a 23-month schedule favored by some commanders in Iraq. The plan would leave up to 50,000 trainers and other U.S. support troops in Iraq until 2012, when the U.S. must pull all troops out or get approval from the Iraqi government for them to stay longer.

Kelly supports cutting levels of combat troops. He notes that the number of American soldiers in Anbar fell from 38,000 to 23,000 during his tour, and he could have cut even more. And those that remained changed their way of operating, encouraging Iraqis to take the lead while promising that a dedicated U.S. military unit would be standing by if the Iraqis ran into trouble and needed U.S. help. "We've never been called as a quick-reaction force since we started doing this," Kelly said. But Kelly's Baghdad commanders were leery. "I had conversations with my bosses in Baghdad more than once [in which they maintained] there was a danger to reducing forces too quickly in Iraq," Kelly recalled. "But I'd make the point frequently that there's also a danger if you keep too many U.S. forces in Iraq because they get in the way."

Kelly said those bosses included the highly rated trio of Army Generals David Petraeus, Ray Odierno and Lloyd Austin. In typical Army fashion, they were conservative in their assessment of the battlefield, and always wanted more troops to keep potential trouble at bay. Kelly, a Marine on his third Iraq tour, said he sensed what was possible in Anbar while his Army bosses in Baghdad didn't. "Maybe because of my experience — and certainly because the Marines were doing so well — I had a sense that things were doable," Kelly said, "perhaps before other people had a sense that they were doable." As Obama unveils the specifics of his pullout plan, he can only hope he's as sure-footed as Kelly.

See pictures of the U.S. troops' five years in Iraq.

See pictures of life returning to Iraq's streets.