When President Elect Barak Obama was campaign in 2008 he promised to have U.S. combat troops out of Iraq by May 2010. The military commanders in the Middle East however, are not comfortable with such a speedy withdrawal, and have proposed a much slower one loosely based upon the Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA). That would mean most U.S. troops would be out by the end of 2011, with an unknown amount of Americans staying behind as advisors and support staff for Iraqis. This is an approach that has been advocated by quite a few of America’s leading think tanks as well. Finding a compromise between Obama’s election promise and the desires of the military will be the first task of the new President’s Iraq policy.
In the middle of December 2008, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and the Head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen presented President Elect Obama and his national security team with their initial plans for withdrawal. General David Petraeus, commander of the Central Command, and General Ray Odierno, U.S. commander in Iraq, drew up the timetable. They loosely based their schedule upon the dates set in the SOFA newly signed between Iraq and the United States. Their withdrawal would start with two brigades of between 7,000-8,000 personnel coming out in the first six months of 2009. After that, the remaining 12 brigades would stay during most of 2009 to ensure Iraq’s elections. There are three planned for that year, provincial, district, and parliamentary. In the middle of the year U.S. forces are supposed to be out of Iraq’s cities however. The Americans are already pulling out of some of their camps and joint military stations, but General Odierno plans on getting around that deadline be re-designating some U.S. soldiers as trainers rather than combat personnel so that they can remain embedded with Iraqi forces. The rest of the U.S. troops would be consolidated into large bases. Only after the elections have been finished and the new politicians seated does Odierno want to begin drawing down large numbers of U.S. troops. By the end of 2011 most U.S. forces would be out, but again General Odierno wants to keep some American troops in Iraq past 2011 as advisors.
This slow approach to withdrawal has been advocated by some of the leading think tanks in the United States. Stephen Biddle, from the Council on Foreign Relations, and Kenneth Pollack and Michael O’Hanlon, both of the Brookings Institution, have long been pushing for a gradual pullout of American forces. In a recent chapter they wrote for book for example, they echoed General Odierno’s concern about securing the Iraqi elections, and only starting sizeable withdrawals after they were completed. They too would have most U.S. forces out by the 2011 SOFA date, but like Odierno would keep some soldiers in the country afterwards.
Although these Iraq experts have criticized the Bush administration for giving Iraq an open-ended commitment, and call for conditional support of Iraq’s government, they and Odierno both want to keep U.S. forces in Iraq as long as possible in the hopes that it will develop politically. The problem is there is no guarantee that this will happen. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is consolidating power around himself to the great disdain of his coalition partners the Kurds and the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council. The upcoming provincial elections, may only shift power from one ruling power to another, giving few seats to new independents. Afterwards Iraq may be just as divided as before, giving American planners more reasons to stay.
This will present President Obama with his first test on Iraq. Will he stick with his election promise of withdrawing combat troops by the middle of 2010 or will he give into his ground commanders? Perhaps he will disregard Petraeus’ and Odierno’s strategy so that he can transfer troops to the growing crisis in Afghanistan and Pakistan. It’s almost impossible to build up troops there without drawing down from Iraq first. There’s also the fact that Americans are not considering the Iraqis that much. In July of this year there will be a referendum on the SOFA. If the agreement is voted down, Baghdad and Washington will have to start all over again working out a deal to keep U.S. troops in Iraq. Either way, the Pentagon’s and the Obama teams’ planning are in their early stages, and changes can be expected on just when U.S. combat troops will ultimately be out, and how many will stay as advisors.
Ashton, Adam and Hammoudi, Laith, “What are ‘combat troops’? Iraq withdrawal depends on answer,” McClatchy Newspapers, 12/23/08
Baldor, Lolita, “Commander: Troops to stay in cities past deadline,” Associated Press, 12/13/08
Biddle, Stephen, O’Hanlon, Michael, Pollack, Kenneth, “The Evolution of Iraq Strategy,” Brookings Institution, December 2008
Bumiller, Elisabeth and Shaner, Thom, “Generals Propose a Timetable for Iraq,” New York Times, 12/18/08
Burns, Robert, “Troops begin to shift out of Iraqi cities,” Associated Press, 11/12/08
Carter, Chelsea, “Top US general in Iraq prepares for troop decision,” Associated Press, 12/22/08
Hauslohner, Abigail, “Iraq’s Iffy New Year Resolution,” Time, 1/2/09
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