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WASHINGTON — Reports that the White House and Defense Secretary Leon Panetta are considering leaving roughly 3,000 troops in Iraq after this year — far fewer than the figures of 10,000 or more being discussed for several months — have raised questions on what real security or political benefit a force of that size could have.

Three thousand troops, about the size of one small brigade, is too few to have a real impact on Iraq’s nationwide internal or external defense, critics charge, but is large enough to still cause political heartburn in Baghdad and Washington, where sentiments are growing to get American troops out of Iraq for good.

“It doesn’t make any military sense, from what I can determine,” said Thomas Donnelly, director of the Center for Defense Studies at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative Washington think tank.

On Wednesday, Pentagon press secretary George Little, while not denying the 3,000-troop option was under consideration, told reporters, “We’re not going to comment on internal administration deliberations.

“If there is to be a troop presence beyond 2011, and there may be, in fact, some kind of training presence, then we want to make sure that we define what the mission set is, first. Troop levels flow from that.”

U.S. defense officials including Iraq War commander Gen. Lloyd Austin have said Iraq’s security forces, at a minimum, would need extended help training their external air defenses and running combined arms operations with tanks and artillery, as well as help with intelligence and logistical support and counterterrorism operations.

At the same time, one U.S. commander said Thursday that training programs for Iraqi troops and police are firmly in place and sustainable, even if the U.S. drew down to zero troops at year’s end.

“If everything proceeds as planned and the U.S. forces are out of the province in the not-too-distant future, I am confident the Iraqi security forces there will be fine,” said Col. Brian Winski, commander of the 4th Advise and Assist Brigade, 1st Cavalry Division, coming out of in Iraq’s northern Nineva province after a one-year deployment.

But the U.S has more security interests to protect and nurture beyond training than 3,000 troops could manage, Donnelly said, including protecting the largest embassy in the world, working closely with the Iraqi defense ministry and general staff to keep them apolitical, learning valuable intelligence from Iraqi army officers and building a sustainable air defense.

“When you put all these things in a pot … it’s really hard to see how you can get by with 3,000 folks,” Donnelly said.

He would not say what specific larger number of troops he felt was necessary, only that trying to perform all of those tasks from regionally bases outside of Iraq would be even more costly and difficult. The U.S. military’s no-fly zone mission of the 1990s, Donnelly said, took more than 4,500 U.S. troops to sustain and was flown from outside of the country, which doesn’t help develop an Iraqi air force.

Anthony Cordesman, a leading security expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said 3,000 troops would leave the U.S. with very limited combat capabilities, but assets in the region are large enough that it would not abandon Iraq or U.S. interests.

“We can provide Iraq with substantial support against any kind of foreign threat or intimidation without having to basically rely on combat forces in Iraq, itself,” he said. “But is this going to increase the risk that Iraq is not going to be properly trained and ready? Yes, it is.”

Cordesman doubted anyone claiming to know the exact number of U.S. troops that will prove to be necessary.

“The fact is, nobody knows,” he said, and the factors to consider go well beyond Iraqi defenses. “When you say how much is enough, all you have to do is be able to predict to the future of the Iraqi government, the future of Iran, the future of stability in the Gulf, and just how much any given scenario would affect the flow of energy exports and the stability of the global economy. And as long as you can do all of those things with some degree of confidence,” he said, wryly, “it’s very easy to predict the level of presence we need inside Iraq.”

Ultimately, it is a political decision for Washington and Baghdad to weigh. Liberal Democrats are hoping President Barack Obama lives up to a popular campaign promise to end the Iraq War, while many Republicans want the U.S. to stay committed with troops. Compromising at 3,000 troops satisfies neither of those camps.

“If you’re going to take that political hit from your base, why not get the full value in return?” Donnelly said.

The U.S. cannot decide a troop level unilaterally, and politically sensitive Iraqi leaders took months just to come to consensus on discussing what they should ask of the American military beyond Dec. 31. This week, one consensus is emerging: Leaking potential troop totals into the press, Cordesman said, “is not the best way to move things forward.”

Twitter: @StripesBaron


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