Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Separation Anxiety Or How The U.S. Military Can’t Part With Iraq

American forces are supposed to withdraw from Iraq by December 31, 2011. The U.S. wants a troop extension. A recent report by Fox News points to a division between the White House and the military over how many soldiers should stay. The Pentagon wants to keep a large and robust force, while the Obama administration is willing to keep a much smaller amount of soldiers, one that could easily be withdrawn in the future.
How many U.S. troops are staying and going?
 On September 6, 2011, Fox News reported an on-going dispute between the U.S. military and the Obama administration over future troop levels in Iraq. Fox claimed that President Obama had agreed to keep just 3,000 U.S. troops in Iraq by the end of the year, while several generals were lobbying for 14,000-18,000. The officers complained that  a force of 3,000 could only be used for training Iraqi forces and not anti-terrorism or any other types of operations. Three senators also criticized the decision. The argument over force levels in Iraq is part of a larger debate going on between the White House, the military, and think tanks over when the United States military should leave the country. Many officers and think tanks argue that the Americans should have a large and open-ended presence in Iraq, while the administration appears to be content to draw down forces and limit their operations.

The U.S. military and a few think tanks have made a concerted effort to convince Iraq, and sometimes the press that America needs to stay in Iraq indefinitely. Their main arguments are that violence will return, politics will remain deadlocked, and Iran will take over. First, they argue that U.S. forces are needed to maintain the peace along the disputed territories between the Kurds and the central government. The U.S. military is also needed for counterterrorism operations against Al Qaeda in Iraq, insurgents, and Shiite Special Groups. Second, Iraqi politics have been deadlocked after the March 2010 national elections, and the country still has a developing democracy, which is plagued by institutional problems such as corruption. The advocates of an extended U.S. stay believe that it can leverage its presence and aid to push Iraqi politics forward and keep it on the right path. Last, officers and some think tanks believe that the greatest threat to Iraq is Iran. They believe that the U.S. military is the only deterrent to Tehran controlling Iraq. These arguments have several problems. In terms of the Arab-Kurd dispute, the United States is not working to alleviate the situation. The joint patrols it created along the disputed territories just maintained the status quo, and the Americans have already pulled out of most of them. The future of the conflicted areas will be determined by political deals not by any U.S. military presence, so their continued stay will not resolve the issue. As for Iraqi politics, they are driven by long-term rivalries dating back to the Saddam era. No matter how much the Americans lobby the Iraqis, they will not likely be able to overcome these differences. Also this can be done by U.S. diplomats working out of the Baghdad embassy, and do not require the military. Finally, Iran and Iraq have been intertwined for centuries. In recent times, both the Shah of Iran and the ayatollahs have supported armed groups and tried to have sway in the country. Whether the U.S. stays or goes that will hold true into the future. Again, countering Iranian influence can be done with American diplomats, because the continued military presence just leads to Tehran supporting Special Groups to attack them, and has not significantly reduced its pull in Baghdad for the last eight years.

The White House and the military appear to be at odds currently over the future of America’s Iraq policy. The problem stems from the fact that the military doesn’t believe that Iraq can run itself. It thinks that everything will fall apart if it were to ever leave. That’s why it has been pushing for a troop extension with as many soldiers as it can. It wants to continue on with all of its operations after the December 31 deadline, just with fewer troops, and thus maintain the status quo. The reality is that politically, the Iraqi government and parties cannot keep a large American presence because the public and many politicians do not want them to stay. The longer they do, the more resentment grows against them. That’s why Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has only called for a small training force to stay rather than the larger force the U.S. has been lobbying for. The decision by President Obama seems to be pointing to the White House being completely fine with a reduced U.S. military role in Iraq, and for the majority of the soldiers to come home. Most of the fighting in Iraq has ended, so Iraq’s future will be determined by its economic and political development. That can be best influenced by the U.S. embassy, rather than a large number of troops staying.


Aswat al-Iraq, “Americans to stop joint operations in North Iraq,” 7/25/11

Davis, Aaron, “In Kirkuk, a test of U.S. peacekeepers’ lasting impact,” Washington Post, 2/8/11

Fox News, “Sources: Obama Administration to Drop Troop Levels in Iraq to 3,000,” 9/6/11

Loney, Jim, “Analysis: Kurds serve warning as U.S. withdrawal nears,” Reuters, 7/31/11

Pollack, Kenneth, “Something Is Rotten in the State of Iraq,” National Interest, 8/24/11

Schmitt, Eric and Myers, Steven Lee, “Plan Would Keep Small Force In Iraq Despite Deadline,” New York Times, 9/6/11

Stewart, Phil, “U.S. troops in Iraq will need immunity: U.S. chief,” Reuters, 8/2/11

Sullivan, Marisa Cochrane, “Obama’s Iraq Abdication,” Wall Street Journal, 7/28/11

Al-Zaman, “Majority in Iraqi Parliament Against Granting U.S. Trainers Immunity,” MEMRI Blog, 8/15/11

Zenko, Micah, “It’s Hard to Say Goodbye to Iraq,” Foreign Affairs, 7/28/11


Steve Donnelly, AICP said...


One way or another, the separation will occur on December 30, 2011.

My hope is that anxiety is left in the dust by the same continuing interests and connections that we even see amongst Viet Nam vets.

Plenty of Americans have seen things in Iraq (beyond wars and politicians) that will, one hopes, maintain continuing personal (and maybe even business or cultural) interests and connections.

Just from a history. architecture, cultural standpoint, Iraq's potential for research and tourism has hardly been scratched.

The clock ticks down soon.


Joel Wing said...

Steve I think there is still room for maneuver and the military will be pressing hard for a larger force. If the final troop number is around 3,000 that will be a real separation, because that means the U.S. military will not be able to do business as usual.

Anonymous said...

Pentagon want to keep troops in Iraq for strategic reasons like those that it has 5th fleet in Bahrain, Japan, Colombia, and other countries. It is part of the full-spectrum dominance doctrine. A strong military base in Iraq would be helpful in dealing with enemy states like Iran. It will also help with control of Iraqi oil fields in a world that China is trying to dominate oil reserves in the region.

Joel Wing said...

Yes, there are definitely strategic interests at work as well. The U.S. can't talk about those openly because it would only create more opposition in Iraq. I also think that institutionally, once the military has stayed somewhere for a while as in Iraq, it just doesn't want to leave.

Steve Donnelly, AICP said...

Let's hear it for Big Ray.

The general, now Army Chief (and with Emma Sky by his side, argues for less troops in Iraq so as to not interfere with self-governance and internal repsponsibilities.

Joel Wing said...

There was also a story today that the military is considering keeping troops in Kuwait to support operations in Iraq. Either the training force would be split between units in Iraq and rotate with others in Kuwait, or a combat force would be kept in Kuwait in case there's any trouble in Iraq.

Anonymous said...

There seems that US military have more than one plan B. One is as you said, keep the troops in Kuwait. Another one (as reported in Washington Post and NYTimes) is to use American security contractors and CIA operative in place of military men. What we should be looking at is not the number of soldiers that are going to be stationed in Iraq, but the total number. Here is an excerpt from NYTimes:

"In some ways, the debate over an American military presence is a rhetorical one. The administration has already drawn up plans for an extensive expansion of the American Embassy and its operations, bolstered by thousands of paramilitary security contractors. It has also created an Office of Security Cooperation that, like similar ones in countries like Egypt, would be staffed by civilians and military personnel overseeing the training and equipping of Iraq’s security forces."

What is now important is to have immunity from Iraqi judicial system for these personal which seems to need approval from Iraqi parliament.

Joel Wing said...

I think the last figure I saw was that the State Department planned on hiring 6,000-7,000 contractors to help with its operations in 2012 and beyond. Remember that the Baghdad embassy is the biggest in the world and the State Department will also have satellite offices in northern and southern Iraq as well. Contractors are needed for security to run equipment, to deliver food, etc. Actually most contractors in Iraq have nothing to do with security and mostly do mundane work like cook and serve food, do the laundry, deliver fuel, etc. A lot of the people doing those service jobs aren't Americans either.

The way things are going in Iraq, there's no way any U.S. troops staying in Iraq are going to have legal immunity because that would require a formal agreement with the Iraqi parliament and they're not having it.

Steve Donnelly, AICP said...

Turkey and Kuwait were always staffed and available to expand missions.

The Mubarak Port issue reminds Kuwaitis of their interests in monitoring Iraq, as do the PKK issues in Turkey.

Do you notice the parallel between Obama's & Gen. Odierno's comments of a small footprint and Sadr's offer to stop attacks in order to hurry our withdrawal.

Obviously, much of the training and maintenance support can be contracted by Iraqis themselves, but the continuing insinuations of insidious CIA involvement through State Department actors (with virtual Blackwater protection) undermines the as-yet-still-unclear civilian mission.

Joel Wing said...

Steve I don't know whether Sadr's recent cease-fire and Obama/Odierno's push for a smaller force staying in Iraq past 2011 are totally related. Sadr tends to make decisions based upon Iraqi and Iranian politics. His most recent comments could be in response to Maliki telling him to lay off. We'll have to see.

In terms of the CIA and State, I too saw that article that said they were pushing for more covert operations in Iraq to counter Iranian influence. I'm sure they're going to try. I'm not sure how successful they'll be. It seems like Iran has far more tools at their disposal in Iraq than the U.S. does.

Joel Wing said...

Steve, more evidence that Sadr is trying to tie himself to Maliki is that he called for a demonstration in support of the prime minister for listening to Sadr's demands!