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Iraq: Quo Vadis?

August 27, 2010

As the Obama administration claims fulfillment of an election promise in the drawdown of U.S. military forces in Iraq to below 50,000 for the first time since the 2003 invasion, three things seems clear:

  1. U.S. combat troops have left Iraq.
  2. U.S. combat operations in Iraq will continue much as before.
  3. As December 31, 2011 approaches, no one knows what will happen.

December 31, 2011 is the date when the U.S.-Iraq withdrawal agreement signed by former President Bush requires all U.S. troops and Defense Department contractors to withdraw from Iraq. The December 31, 2011 commitment to complete withdrawal is legally binding on the United States. Keeping any U.S. troops or Defense Department contractors in Iraq longer would require a new agreement between the U.S. and Iraq, including, barring a coup d’etat in Iraq, approval by the Iraqi parliament. (No coup d’etat would be necessary in the United States, since Congress has declined to interfere with U.S.-Iraqi security agreements, though it could nonetheless refuse to fund a U.S. troop presence in Iraq beyond 2011.)

Since five months after parliamentary elections, Iraq still does not have a government, it is difficult to speculate on what an Iraqi government might want to do on the question of extending the U.S. military presence in the country. It’s a little easier to guess that the Iraqi parliament will be skeptical. At least the previous Iraqi parliament was the repository of a healthy sense of national sovereignty. Iraqi nationalism is probably the main reason why the U.S. has an agreement now, signed by President Bush no less, for complete withdrawal from Iraq. But before looking at future prospects, the present paradox requires explanation.

Combat without combat troops

U.S. combat troops are gone, but U.S. combat operations will continue much as before. The key to understanding this paradox is simply to reject the notion of “combat troops” and its presumed oxymoronic opposite, “noncombat troops.” Both the Bush and Obama administrations have played fast and loose with talk of “combat troops” and “combat mission” vs. “support and training mission” and the media have done little to challenge these obfuscations. These are distinctions often without a difference. The 50,000 or so U.S. troops remaining in Iraq (supported by a remaining 75,000 Defense Department contractors) are as capable of mounting combat operations as those that have been withdrawn. U.S. special forces units remain in the country, moreover, conducting “counter terrorism operations” instead of “combat operations.”

The U.S. drastically scaled back daily “combat operations” more than a year ago when, under the terms of the U.S.-Iraq withdrawal agreement, it withdrew U.S. forces from Iraqi cities and other populated areas. The drop in U.S. casualties in Iraq during the last year has reflected this reduction in combat activity. Since then, U.S. special forces have continued to mount “counter terrorism operations” and other U.S. troops have supported and advised Iraqi forces and remained available to engage more directly at Iraqi request. None of this will change in the coming 16-month countdown to December 31, 2011, although further troop reductions should take place. It is certainly good that U.S. forces in Iraq are lower than at any time since 2003, but the change is in the numbers; the activities will be little different than in the preceding year.

U.S. Presence after December 2011

If no one knows what will happen after December 31, 2010, what at least are the possibilities? One thing the “withdrawal of combat troops” has done is to bring ideas about a U.S. presence in the post-2011 period out into the open.

One idea that will certainly become reality to some extent is to keep private security forces in Iraq under contract with the Department of State, instead of the Department of Defense, which the U.S.-Iraq withdrawal agreement prohibits. The State Department already has security contractors in Iraq. More are envisioned after December 2011. Some have portrayed this as a State Department mercenary army to wage war in the absence of U.S. troops. The administration presents the contractors as bodyguards for diplomats and aide workers. Press reports suggest something in between. There could be several thousand contractors, ferrying U.S. government employees around in 29 helicopters, 60 mine-proof MRAP vehicles, and more than 1,000 armored cars. The contractors could also fly reconnaissance drones and have radar to call in air strikes, according to a New York Times report August 21.

This vision of a militarized civilian diplomatic and assistance force flying around and lumbering about all over the country deserves close scrutiny from Congress. It will serve neither Iraqi nor U.S. interests for Iraqis to live with a continued occupation of open-collar shirts wielding automatic weapons and pin stripe suits with briefcases. The U.S. has a great responsibility to rebuild Iraq but it needs to do the work with a much smaller footprint than seems to be planned.

More U.S. troops?

Other ideas have to do with how many and what kind of U.S. military forces will be in Iraq for one purpose or another after December 2011. They range from a very few to quite a lot. Without a new U.S.-Iraq status of forces agreement it would probably be possible for some U.S. troops to remain as bona fide trainers—in classrooms, on Iraqi army bases, but not in the field and engaging in combat embedded with Iraqi army units. A small-scale presence of bona fide trainers is almost certain to remain after December 2011, unless political developments in Iraq reorient Baghdad away from friendly relations with the U.S.

Some, however, envision a much larger continuing U.S. military presence that would require a new U.S.-Iraq status of forces agreement. Pentagon and other administration officials speaking not for attribution are talking about a residual U.S. presence of 5,000 to 10,000 U.S. troops serving as what are being called “trainers and advisors.” In the mind of some, however, these are very active “trainers and advisors” that could accompany Iraqi forces into battle or provide key combat support functions to Iraqi forces.

No Iraqi politician will speak at the moment about negotiating a new agreement with the U.S. that would permit U.S. forces to remain in Iraq after 2010. That is a good index that, despite very high anxieties for the future among Iraqis as U.S. forces drawdown, a long-term U.S. military presence would be very unwelcome by a majority of Iraqis.

Lame duck Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki has suggested that Iraq could make do without U.S. troops by signing non-aggression pacts with its neighbors. Now there’s a novel war-is-not-the-answer idea. We at FCNL, with your help, will be working to occupy Congress and the administration with that kind of sensible thinking from Iraq.

One Comment
  1. September 12, 2010 12:23 pm

    Interesting that the U.S. is considering shrinking its military presence in Iraq down to “trainers and advisers”–isn’t that how we started out in Vietnam, first with “advisers” and then with “aggressive advisers” and onward?

    I hope Jim Fine continues his postings from his new position in Iraq. His analyses are so lucid and free of jargon that he leaves me feeling educated rather than confused. We need him in the daily newspapers.

    A question concerning the Iraqi death toll since the first invasion. Mr. Fine puts it at two to three million. Why do we only see “thousands” or “a hundred thousand or more” in the mass media–if the subject is even mentioned?

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