Are all U.S. troops really going to be out of Iraq by the end of 2011? Should they be? Will the country fall apart once they're gone? Or should they, can they, make their exit even sooner?
Even as the official focus shifts to the war in Afghanistan, a debate has erupted over the endgame in Iraq. It is universally seen as an endgame; we are getting out. The issue is how quickly, how completely, and, if some troops are left behind, what they should and should not do.
The Status of Forces Agreement, which the U.S. and Iraqi governments signed in November 2008 (in other words, while George W. Bush was still president), is clear: "All U.S. forces are to withdraw from all Iraqi territory, water and airspace no later than the 31st of December 2011." No ifs, ands, or buts.
Yet last week, during a trip to Washington, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki told reporters that the deadline could be extended. "If the Iraqi forces required further training and further support," he said, "we shall examine this then at the time, based on the needs of Iraq."
Several American officers and private military analysts have been predicting for a while that Iraq will still need "further training and further support," and that, therefore, the accord will—or at least should—be revised.
Yet earlier this week, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, asked whether U.S. troops might stay in Iraq beyond the 2011 deadline, replied that, in fact, the withdrawal might be accelerated. And in today's New York Times, Michael Gordon reports on an internal memo by Col. Timothy Reese, a senior U.S. adviser to the Iraqi military, urging American commanders to "declare victory and go home." Internecine strife still exists and will continue for a long time, Reese wrote, but Iraq's security forces are now "good enough" to keep insurgents from toppling the government—and, meanwhile, the continued American presence is only sparking more violence.
So, which is it: We need to stay longer, we need to leave now, or something in between?
The Reese memo's key insight is that whatever the state of Iraq at the moment, it isn't going to change, certainly not as a result of anything the United States says or does. We've lost nearly all our leverage over Iraqi politics—its tendency toward rule-by-strongman, its Stalinist military, its ethnic tensions, aggravated by the Kurds' secessionist impulses—and there's little we can do at this point to gain it back. Maliki recently gave a cold shoulder to Vice President Joe Biden during the latter's visit to Baghdad. The Iraqi military is imposing restrictions on U.S. troop movements. We're leaving ourselves vulnerable with little power to improve our position.
Yet Reese's main weakness is that he fails even to address the argument (it may or may not be true, but he needs at least to address it) that Iraq's tensions have calmed to the point that its own security forces can handle them only because of the U.S. military's presence and its threat of hammer blows if some insurgent group starts to get out of control.
The dynamics of the impending troop withdrawal were played out last year in a war game—called "Joint Urban Warrior 2008"—co-sponsored by the U.S. Marine Corps and Joint Forces Command. It was a huge "tabletop" exercise, involving more than 350 people from various countries, supervised by a general officer and attended by Pentagon brass.
According to a senior participant in the game, its conclusion was that Iraq would be stable with a large troop presence (there were 165,000 foreign troops at the time) and with a small troop presence (fewer than 25,000 advisers operating behind the scenes). However, he said, during "the drawdown from large to small forces," Iraq "would pass through a period of instability." In this period of transition, he explained, "we would have enough troops to irritate a lot of Iraqis but not enough to keep things stable."
One could argue, from this, that the U.S. troop pullout should be accelerated in order to shorten this treacherous period of transition and get down to the level of 25,000 advisers—and thus restore stability—as quickly as possible.
This argument might have validity, or it might not. No war game can predict how long the transition period would last. In any case, unless we're hellbent to get out regardless of the consequences, the question is not entirely in our control. It depends on how strongly the insurgents or other dangerous elements react to the U.S. withdrawal. If the war game proves prescient—if, during this in-between period, our troop presence is large enough to irritate Iraqis but too small to stabilize the country—they're likely to exploit the moment and gain as much advantage as they can.
If that does happen, U.S. commanders and policymakers will face a choice: whether to withdraw more quickly—to keep our troops out of danger and let the inevitable instability play out—or to hold firm and try, perhaps futilely, to restore order.
Either way is risky. It's disingenuous to deny that; the question is which risk to take.
There is one middle course—sort of. When Maliki said last week that Iraq might still need "further training and further support" after December 2011, he wasn't necessarily suggesting that the deadline be formally extended. Such a step would require the Iraqi Parliament to revise the Status of Forces Agreement, and—short of a dramatic shift in Iraq's political balance, brought on by a threat to the state's existence that all factions are desperate to stave off—that isn't likely to happen.
Yet over the next year or so, Iraq plans to buy lots of armored vehicles and combat planes from the United States and perhaps from other countries. It needs to do this because without U.S. troops and air support, its military has no ability to defend Iraq's borders from incursions or attacks. If the ethnic clashes spin out of control, Iran or Saudi Arabia might feel compelled to invade; if the Kurds declare independence, Turkey might feel the same to keep its own Kurdish minority from following their Iraqi brethren's example.
In any case, when the United States or any large power gives or sells advanced weapons to another country, the package includes a team of trainers and advisers. Maliki, or whoever is in charge, could declare—with some legal grounding—that those trainers and advisers do not fall under the terms of the Status of Forces Agreement, that they are a normal appendage to a transaction vital to Iraqi security and sovereignty.
These would be a small number of advisers and trainers—no more than 10,000, probably fewer still.
But that's the point. If the total withdrawal of U.S. troops turns out to be a step that neither we nor the Iraqis really desire—if the drawdown between a large American presence and a small American presence has unleashed too much instability for anybody's comfort (ours, the Iraqis', or that of other countries in the region)—this might be a finessing evasion.