Pentagon fears Iraq is becoming 'forgotten war'

Despite progress in Iraq, the Pentagon cautions that security in the country remains fragile. Military and civilian officials hint that the US could stay past 2011.

J. Scott Applewhite/AP
Sen. John McCain (R) of Arizona (r.) greets US Ambassador to Iraq James Jeffrey (c.) and Gen. Lloyd James Austin III, commander of American forces in Iraq, on Capitol Hill in Washington Thursday, prior to the start of the Senate Armed Services Committee's hearing on the situation in Iraq.

Iraq is in danger of becoming a “forgotten war,” much as Afghanistan was earlier in the decade, according to senior US officials. Testifying on Capitol Hill this week, they further warned that US neglect of the country – where security remains “fragile” – could create a “Charlie Wilson’s War” moment for America.

At the same time, in the face of ongoing instability on the ground, officials offered one of the first hints that the American military could stay in Iraq beyond this year. US troops must pull out of Iraq by Dec. 31, 2011 under the current security agreement.

“It would have been unthinkable even two years ago to say that we would reach a point at which most Americans and, indeed, some people in Washington, would increasingly be forgetting about Iraq,” Sen. John McCain (R) of Arizona, the ranking member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said Thursday. “But that point has largely come. And as much as it reflects the dividends of success, especially the success of the surge, we disregard Iraq at great peril.”

On this point, there was agreement among Iraqi-based US officials, too. The US ambassador to Iraq, James Jeffrey, said that there remain “substantial risks of what some people call a ‘Charlie Wilson’s War’ moment in Iraq," referring to the book and film that depicted how the US intervention in and then abandonment of Afghanistan in the 1980s left a vacuum that was eventually filled by the Taliban, which gave safe haven to Al Qaeda.

Iraq is showing "both a resurgence of Al Qaeda and the empowering of problematic regional players,” said Ambassador Jeffrey.

Gen. Lloyd Austin, commander of US Forces in Iraq, likewise warned that “Sunni extremist groups like Al Qaeda will continue to target the government of Iraq, the Iraqi security forces, and Iraqi civilians in order to garner media attention, and to attempt to demonstrate that the government cannot provide security for the Iraqi people.” What’s more, the city of Kirkuk in the oil-rich north is still in dispute between southern Arabs and the northern Kurds.

For these reasons, Austin said, “the threats to Iraq’s stability will remain in 2012.”

Whether US troops stay beyond 2011, however, depends on whether Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki requests an extension of a US military presence, something that could happen in the months ahead, according to senior officials.

“It is unclear whether the Maliki government will seek any type of continuing US presence after December, given that the terms of the security agreement provides that all of our troops will be removed by this December,” said Sen. Carl Levin (D) of Michigan, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee. “Iraq needs to engage with the United States sooner rather than later, if such a request is going to be forthcoming.”

While Jeffrey said that the United States has, as yet, “received no such request,” he added that he “can’t say what they’ll say in the future.” Whether the Iraqi government will make such a request or not depends on how US forces “meet their training and equipping needs with the program that we set up.”

Jeffrey and Austin do not rule out such a possibility.

Neither does Congress. Senator McCain, for his part, issued his own warning that included a certain measure of political calculus as well. “If, God forbid, Iraq’s progress should unravel and the moment of opportunity is squandered,” he reminded his fellow senators, “no one should think that the American people will be forgiving in holding their leaders accountable for that failure.”

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