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Iraq: Rotating U.S. Troops May Create Security Problems

The U.S. Defense Department plans to bring about 100,000 fresh troops into Iraq during the first four months of next year and withdraw most of the 130,000 personnel there now, bringing troops levels down to about 105,000. The resulting force may be fresh, but will it also have sufficient experience and training to do the job?

Washington, 27 November 2003 (RFE/RL) -- The Pentagon has announced an ambitious program to rotate its troops in Iraq.

The plan will see the introduction of some 100,000 new troops in the country next year -- largely to replace the 130,000 or so that are there now.

The rotation plan comes as a relief to soldiers now stationed in Iraq -- who have had to endure not only war-fighting, but also peace-keeping that has been far bloodier than troops had expected.

The large size of the rotation and the introduction of less-experienced troops from the National Guard and Reserve -- not regular U.S. Army personnel -- however, has raised concern for the safety of the soldiers and their effectiveness in restoring order.

An estimated 40 percent of the new troops to be deployed in Iraq will be members of the National Guard and Reserve -- in other words from U.S. state militias. They are mostly part-time soldiers, essentially civilians, who train on weekends and during two-week summer sessions. Today these soldiers make up just 20 percent of the U.S. force in Iraq.

Will these forces' part-time training put them at a disadvantage in coping with the insurgency and the cultural differences that they will face in Iraq?

"No," says Jack Spencer, an analyst on defense and national security issues at the Heritage Foundation, a private policy research center in Washington.

Spencer acknowledges that regular Army units are always ready to be deployed, but once they are in the field, there is little difference between them and forces from the National Guard and Reserve.

"The difference between Guard and Reserves and the regular Army [soldiers] is in how long it takes them to get trained up to be fielded. By the time they're in the field they are very interoperable and very much on par with one another," Spencer said.

Spencer says it is a misconception to represent members of the National Guard and the Reserve as simply part-time soldiers. In fact, Spencer says, the Guard and Reserves have seen an increasing amount of active duty for the past decade. He says this began with the cuts in the U.S. military during the early days of the administration of President Bill Clinton in the 1990s, and continued with deployments in Somalia and the Balkans, and now in Afghanistan and Iraq.

"Show me a Guardsman who's not spent most of his time deployed over the past decade. The Guard and Reserve of today is different than what perhaps the stereotype is. While they certainly do train on weekends and two weeks a year, they also have been spending many months of the year deployed, beginning really with the early Clinton administration," Spencer said.

Further, Spencer says, the Guard and Reserve also train a greater proportion of military police and civil affairs officers than the regular Army does. So while the American force may now be focused on contending with the insurgents, Spencer says, the force needed next year may have duties for which they have appropriate training.

"It may be a force with responsibilities more geared toward the Reserve and Guard capabilities, especially given the fact that there's certain functions that are housed solely in the Guard, or at least mostly in the Guard, such as civil affairs," Spencer said.

Ted Galen Carpenter, another expert, does not see the transition going as smoothly. Carpenter is the vice president for defense and foreign policy studies at the Cato Institute, another private Washington think tank.

Carpenter says the greater use of fresh troops from the National Guard and Reserves means that a bigger proportion of the U.S. force in Iraq will be less familiar with the dangers of serving there, making them more vulnerable.

U.S. National Guard and Reserve troops may be well trained, Carpenter says, but not nearly as well trained as regular Army forces. And he says very, very few American forces are trained properly to confront a counterinsurgency, putting Guard and Reserve troops at a distinct disadvantage.

"So you go from a situation where, even with the active-duty forces, the training in counterinsurgency may not be adequate, to National Guard troops, where the training in counterinsurgency is manifestly inadequate," Carpenter said.

Overall, Carpenter says, the U.S. Defense Department's troop-rotation plan will leave the American military force in Iraq next year faced with problems virtually across the board.

"My guess is that we're going to run into more trouble, [the replacement troops] are not well trained for this particular kind of mission, they are not familiar with the Iraqi culture -- even the forces that are there have taken a good many months to become even reasonably familiar with that culture, and they're not terribly familiar even at this point. So sending in green [inexperienced] troops will just compound the incidence of friction between the Iraqi population and the American occupation force," Carpenter says.

Carpenter also says that to maintain even the barest of good relations with the Iraqi people, American troops should undergo what he calls "a crash course in cross-cultural relations." He says the personnel who are there now may help in this regard before they leave, but probably cannot provide all the training needed.