US to begin drawdown in Iraq
In coming weeks, 18,000 troops in northern Iraq will be replaced with a force half that size.
It's been dubbed the "Mosul model" - where US soldiers have been in the vanguard of everything from setting up local governing councils to running a "Star Search" program on local TV.
The 101st Airborne Division's approach to waging peace in this northern Iraqi city is frequently lauded as the ideal of what men and women trained for war can accomplish by setting their guns aside and targeting development and local ties.
But now it faces a crucial test: doing the same mission with half as many US troops.
In just a few weeks, 18,000 soldiers of the 101st in northern Iraq will start streaming home, part of a rotation of all 120,000 US forces in Iraq. Replacing the 101st will be a much smaller force: The Army's new Stryker Brigade, a force of 5,000 or so soldiers whose unit is built around the capabilities of the Army's latest high-tech combat vehicle, and units that will bring the total to 9,000, say officers in the 101st.
The US hopes to reduce its presence in Iraq to about 50,000 by the end of 2005, coalition officials say. The biggest short-term reduction, it appears, will be in the north.
Stryker will be joined by other elements from the Army and perhaps coalition allies, but Maj. Gen. David Petraeus, the 101st's commander, says there will be an "appreciable reduction in forces" in his area of operation. He thinks Stryker can handle the challenge.
"They will have the benefit of a substantially larger Iraqi security presence coming on line,'' says General Petraeus, whose unit has trained more than 10,000 Iraqi soldiers, border guards, and police. "This is an occasion where we'll see how the new Iraqi security forces are going to do. I think they'll be fine."
Petraeus has been slowly pulling his forces back since September, seeking to hand over more and more authority to a local governor and council selected shortly after the 101st arrived in the Mosul area last April. "We're only six months away from June and handing control of the country back over to Iraqis," he says.
"The number of joint patrols we run on the border with Syria, for instance, has been steadily decreasing as the capabilities of local forces have increased,'' says Maj. Mike Getchell, who serves in the 101st's Third Brigade under Col. Mike Linnington, outside the city of Talafar.
Mosul, Iraq's third-largest city, has been the most stable and prosperous of any of the regions under US military control. Long gas lines are nonexistent, and entrepreneurs are starting new businesses.
But while Mosul has been more peaceful than the Sunni Triangle, and insurgent attacks have dropped sharply from a high in November, a war is still being fought. Riots over jobs and food swept two southern cities in the past week, with British soldiers and Iraqi police shooting six protesters in Basra. On Jan. 8, an Army medivac helicopter was shot down, killing all eight aboard, and an Apache attack helicopter was shot down Jan. 12, without casualties.
Commanders in Mosul say they're confident their replacements will do a good job.
"I think we're all very comfortable with the new guys coming in,'' says Colonel Linnington. "The Stryker Brigade has the latest and greatest in Army technology. Their vehicles can reach out and see 30 to 40 kilometers away. They've got many unmanned aerial vehicles, so rather than relying only on patrols, they can sit in [offices] and maneuver a joystick and see where their forces are needed."
But these same commanders highlight the use of dozens of foot patrols in the region's cities every day as a crucial tool for winning over the local population. The patrols have allowed the type of direct contact with Iraqis that mounted patrols don't.
Some soldiers privately say they worry the new brigade's smaller numbers and reliance on the Stryker and its technology will cut out that human contact and, potentially, make them more vulnerable to attack.
Yet the smaller Stryker brigade goes to the heart of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld's vision of transforming the Army into a faster and more lethal fighting force that can do more with less. While smaller numbers may be able to handle Iraq's insurgency, particularly with the assistance of Iraqi forces, it remains to be seen whether they'll be able to administer as many rebuilding programs - or if Iraqis are ready to take up the slack.
"The ministries were set up to support a dictatorship, not a democracy,'' says Col. Christopher Pease, a commander in Talafar who has worked on changing Iraq's political culture. "Initiative was discouraged."
On a recent Friday night, General Petraeus flashed slides at a staccato pace for his soldiers as a benevolently rendered portrait of Saddam Hussein gazed down on him in Mosul's former Republican Palace. One matrix after another popped up with statistics on such issues as counterinsurgency and public health.
Petraeus, who has a PhD in international relations from Princeton University, presided at the mike, a cross between soldier-scholar and emcee.
About $50 million worth of small-scale construction projects were looked at, from rebuilding schools to filling potholes and planting trees. The group reviewed insurgent arrests and a weapons buyback program. They monitored the flow of calls into a tips hotline and firmed up privatization plans for a local hotel.
For the 101st, development and reconstruction has been the platform of its success. Their mantra has been "money is our ammunition," and commanders worry that if aid projects dry up, some local cooperation could disappear with it. "With resources and money comes power and cooperation,'' says Linnington.
Late last year when funding dried up for the Commander's Emergency Response Program (CERP), a streamlined effort to get money to small projects, commanders across Iraq were hit with more attacks.
"We're problem-solvers, and the biggest contributor to solving problems has been CERP,'' says Major Getchell.
The 101st's legacy began when it was formed in 1942. In the past few years, parts of the 101st have served in Afghanistan and Kosovo. The division rolled over the Kuwait border on March 21 and fought its way north in battles at Karbala, Hilla, and Najaf. After the capital fell, they made their way to Mosul. The 101st is loaded with troops who've spent more time abroad than they have with new spouses and children. [Editor's note: The orginal version of this story incorrectly stated that the 101st Airborne division parachuted into Normandy in 1942.]
Sgt. Robert Brown of Hamilton, Ohio, was married on Valentine's Day and shipped out the day after. He hasn't seen his wife or three children from a previous marriage since.
"I can't say this hasn't been hard - but I feel like we've made a part of history," he says. "The focus has been on doing this right so our sons don't have to come back and do it again."