That the Obama administration has plans to drawn down to a tiny force in Iraq shouldn't be a surprise. The Iraqis haven't (yet) given America permission to stay.
Fox News broke the story yesterday that the Obama administration is planning to cut the US military presence in Iraq to about 3,000 at the start of next year, prompting predictable posturing and hand-wringing from politicians and pundits in the beltway. One thing much of the media commentary has neglected so far? The role of Iraq's politicians and people in making this decision.
There are currently more than 40,000 troops in Iraq, who in August enjoyed their first month without a man or woman killed in action since 2003. The uniformed US presence has been steadily declining since the peak of the US troop surge there in 2007, when about 150,000 troops were in country.
The current US Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) with Iraq, which authorizes the US presence and provides key assurances to America (for instance, that US troops will be subject to the Uniform Code of Military Justice, not Iraqi law) is set to expire on Dec. 31. The agreement mandated the US withdrawal from major combat roles in Iraqi cities in 2009, a step that was accordingly taken, and was designed to see a complete withdrawal of US forces by 2012 if a new agreement wasn't reached.
Though the United States has been pushing for a new SOFA for more than a year now, the Iraqi government has been loath to act. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki came to power thanks to a Shiite coalition that includes elements like anti-American preacher Muqtada al-Sadr, who has been demanding a full US withdrawal from the country.
Some prominent Iraqi politicians are eager for an extended US presence. Among them is Iyad Allawi, the former exile whose bid for the premiership was blocked by Mr. Maliki. But there have been no signs of Iraq's parliament or political class taking action to extend the US presence as the clock winds down. A force of 3,000 however, which would probably just play a training role and be confined to a handful of major Iraqi bases, can probably be finessed – particularly since Iraq remains eager for US military assistance and hardware.
The New York Times followed Fox with a similar story this morning, saying that Gen. Lloyd J. Austin III, the American commander in Iraq, wants 14,000 to 18,000 troops to remain in Iraq. Last night, the White House denied that Defense Secretary Leon Panetta is recommending a 3,000 member force, but it should be assumed that a plan for a force at least that small is currently in the drawer.
The Obama administration is clearly eager to deliver on a campaign promise to get America out of one of its wars, particularly given the weak US economy and calls for government spending cuts across the board.
It's true that Iraq remains a dangerous place. Attacks by Sunni jihadis against civilians and Iraqi officials have been on the rise recently, and US officials have consistently claimed that Iranian-backed Shiite militias are also armed and ready for action inside the country. Special Inspector General for Iraq reconstruction Stuart Bowen wrote in his July report that Iraq was less safe than a year ago, and that "the situation continues to deteriorate."
But Iraq's fractured politics are going to be a major factor in deciding what happens from here. To ignore the wishes of the Iraqis in this matter would be tantamount to denying the sovereignty that was returned with so much fanfare more than five years ago. Maliki's cabinet has agreed to negotiate an extended US presence – but has insisted any possible deal be limited to training only. Maliki, as a politician whose own constituency is generally hostile to any extension of what many there still call the US "occupation," would be asking for serious political trouble by openly advocating a larger US presence.
Some American politicians appear blind, at least in their public statements, to a political reality that's been emerging in Iraq for years.
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R) of South Carolina issued a statement yesterday saying "reducing our troop presence down to 3,000 would put at risk all the United States has fought for in Iraq ... the biggest winner of a US decision to move to [3,000] troops in Iraq would the Iranian regime."
Graham, together with senators John McCain (R) of Arizona and Joe Lieberman (I) of Connecticut also issued a joint statement yesterday complaining that "this is dramatically lower than what our military leaders have consistently told us over the course of repeated visits to Iraq that they require... in particular, we are very concerned by the prospect that a follow-on force might lack the capabilities and authorities necessary to help Iraqis ensure stability across the disputed territories in northern Iraq, which we consider an essential mission."
That mention of "disputed territories" refers to Iraq's largely autonomous Kurdistan, where the US remains hugely popular and an extended troop presence – seen as guarantee against a loss of that autonomy to Iraq's majority Arab population – would be warmly welcomed. But they fail to propose or deal with the problem of keeping a larger presence in Iraq absent the Iraqi government's support.
There are almost four months left before the end of the year. That Iraq's political class, with US prodding, may come to an arrangement that allows a greater US presence, is still a possibility. But there are no signs of that yet.