Iraq withdrawal: How many US troops will remain?

The Obama administration is considering a plan to leave about 3,000 support troops behind at the end of the year, if Iraqis agree. But reports suggest that the Pentagon is angling for more.

Maya Alleruzzo/AP/File
US Army soldiers confer during a patrol outside Contingency Operating Site Taji north of Baghdad on Aug. 7.

The Obama administration is considering dropping the president’s commitment to withdrawing all US troops from Iraq by the end of the year in favor of keeping several thousand military trainers there.

The plan is already running into roadblocks in Iraq and in the US. In Washington, some political leaders are calling on President Obama to leave no troops behind, while others say the president should heed his military commanders on the ground and keep far more troops than the 3,000 to 4,000 he is considering.

On Tuesday, three of the Senate’s big guns on military affairs – John McCain (R) of Arizona, Lindsey Graham (R) of South Carolina, and Joe Lieberman (I) of Connecticut – issued a statement criticizing the 3,000 number as “dramatically lower than what our military leaders have consistently told us … they require.”

US military commanders, led by Gen. Lloyd Austin III, the senior commander in Iraq, are proposing that up to 18,000 US troops remain in Iraq after the year-end pull-out date. Currently, about 45,000 US troops are in Iraq.

The military request for a higher residual force reflects a conclusion by commanders on the ground that Iraqi security forces are not yet ready to forgo the support and guidance of a substantial US training presence. Officially, any remaining US forces would be limited to training functions, which is already the stated purpose of US troops in Iraq.

August was the first month of the Iraq war that registered no US casualties, a milestone that reflects a transition to Iraqi forces for ensuring the country’s security.

Yet under any scenario the function of US troops in Iraq would not realistically limited to providing training, military experts say.

“The key thing determining the number of troops you leave there, if any, will be: What is their mission?” says Kerry Kachejian, a former Army engineer who for several years directed numerous reconstruction projects in Iraq. “Is it really just to train, or is it to provide some reassurance – and some backup to the military if there is some deterioration?”

Colonel Kachejian, a reservist who has just written a book, “SUVs Suck in Combat: The Rebuilding of Iraq During a Raging Insurgency,” says US and Iraqi leaders have to balance the need for Iraqis to take full control of their own security against the reality of continuing conflict.

“It’s still not a fully stable environment,” he says.

Indeed, the good news for US forces’ diminishing casualties does not mean that Iraq has achieved domestic tranquility. A recent uptick in sectarian violence – including the deadly bombing of a Sunni mosque in Baghdad during Ramadan – has some Iraqis, especially Sunnis and Kurds, worried that a full US withdrawal will lead to new tensions with the country’s Shiite majority.

But Iraq’s prime minister, the Shiite Nouri al-Maliki, is showing no signs (at least publicly) of favoring any residual US force in Iraq. Some elements in his coalition, in particular the radical cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, are outspoken in their opposition to any US forces staying behind after the end of the year.

“Maliki has to be thinking long and hard about this,” says Lawrence Korb, a foreign affairs analyst at the Center for American Progress in Washington. “Moqtada al-Sadr is the guy who put him over the top [in the last elections], and now he’s the guy out there insisting he’ll cause some damage if the Americans don’t get out on schedule.”

Another factor for Mr. Maliki, however, is his desire to maintain good relations with the US and to keep his access open to American arms.

Mr. Korb, a former Pentagon official, says he has heard more talk of the military seeking a post-2011 force for Iraq closer to 10,000, but he says the top number of 18,000 may be what some commanders have concluded would be optimal.

“The military doesn’t put out numbers as a bargaining chip, but really what they think they need,” he says. “They don’t want to see this place fall apart after all the sacrifices they’ve made up to now.”

On the other hand, he says it is stretching reality to say that any remaining troops would be there simply for training purposes.

Others point out that the US presence by any measure will be substantial after the end of the year, with contractors remaining in significant numbers to provide protection to US diplomats. At the same time the CIA is expected to boost its operations in Iraq, with concerns growing over Iran’s influence and activity inside Iraq and around the region.

The issue of troops in Iraq is not likely to become a consuming issue for Mr. Obama, Korb says, as long as the cost is relatively low, and US troops remain out of harm’s way. “If Sadr makes good on his threat to give the US trouble if we stay,” he says, “then Obama has problems.”

The US may have some strong levers to pull for getting what they want from the Iraqis, but as Kachejian notes, a residual force of US troops is ultimately an Iraqi decision.

“At the end of the day, Iraq is a sovereign nation, they will make the call,” he says. “And if they say, ‘You gotta go,’ then we gotta go.”

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