On Iraq Withdrawal: How fast is too fast?

So  it looks like US troops will be out of Iraq by_2010:

Mr. Obama agreed to give commanders 19 months to withdraw all combat brigades, 3 months longer than he promised on the campaign trail, to guard against any resurgence of violence. The bulk of the forces will remain in place until nearly next year to allow commanders to keep as many forces as possible through parliamentary elections in December.

After August 2010, the Obama plan will leave behind 35,000 to 50,000 of the 142,000 American troops now in Iraq to advise and train Iraqi security forces, conduct discrete counterterrorism missions and protect American civilian and military personnel working in the country, including State Department reconstruction teams.

But is it as simple as this?  Does the US actually control the destiny of Iraq to the extent that it can just set a date for withdrawal and then leave?    Michael Hanna of the Century Foundation warns that new realities are complicating things:

But much of the discussion is being conducted from a Washington-centric perspective that ignores how radically the U.S.-Iraq Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA), signed by President Bush late last year, has altered the landscape for U.S. military forces operating in Iraq.

As part of the SOFA, the United States is required to withdraw its military forces from Iraqi cities by June 30, 2009, and from the country entirely by the end of 2011. Though some critics think this timeline is too fast, there is a good chance that the U.S. may be forced to withdraw even sooner: In order to coax reticent parliamentarians into approving the agreement, the Maliki government has agreed to hold a national referendum in July of this year to ratify the SOFA. If the SOFA fails to pass, the United States would have just one year to withdraw all its military forces from Iraq.

Beyond forcing an expedited withdrawal, a failed referendum would likely cause even U.S. allies among Iraqi politicians to ratchet up the level of nationalist demagoguery against the U.S. military presence to position themselves for their parliamentary campaigns. In such a heated atmosphere, insurgents could also prove more likely to step up their activity against withdrawing U.S. troops, radicalizing the environment for parliamentary elections and further complicating the redeployment of U.S. troops. Whether or not a future U.S.-Iraqi military relationship is advisable beyond the terms of the SOFA, such a scenario would likely preclude the Iraqi government from seeking support for it. Opponents of the United States would also frame a withdrawal under these circumstances as a repudiation of the United States and a defeat for U.S. policy in the region.

In this context, significant drawdowns in upcoming months will become a litmus testfor the credibility and seriousness of the Obama administration in respecting public commitments to withdraw U.S. forces from Iraq. While the exact timeline for withdrawing U.S. forces is less important, if no significant redeployments occur prior to the national referendum, Iraqi public opinion could very well conclude that Washington is determined to maintain a significant military presence in Iraq regardless of the public pronouncements and treaty obligations to the contrary.

Better that the U.S. begin withdrawal now, on its own terms–and in the process, enhance the chances that the SOFA will not be rejected by the Iraqi people. At the same time, President Obama would project an unmistakable message to the Arab world that the United States is serious in recalibrating the nature of its engagement with the region.

In some quarters, it is widely assumed that Iraqis’ rhetorical opposition to the U.S. military presence belies a begrudging acceptance of U.S. troops as the price of preserving recent security gains. However, gambling on Iraqi support for a continuing foreign military presence would seem to be a risky policy-planning approach that could create the conditions for a hasty withdrawal on highly unfavorable terms.

Undoubtedly, U.S. forces continue to play a vital role in providing combat and logistical support to Iraqi forces. Their presence might also serve as a buffer against the outbreak of widespread ethno-sectarian warfare and provide a point of leverage–albeit of diminishing value–in prodding Iraqi political forces to come to terms with the fundamental questions on governance, territory, and resources that still divide the country. But even if advocates of a rapid redeployment of U.S. forces overestimate the capabilities of Iraqi forces to secure the country with diminished U.S. assistance, the continued presence of U.S. forces in any capacity is now wholly dependent on Iraqi approval of the SOFA. Iraqi public opinion now matters, whether we like it or not, and behaving as if the question of troop redeployments is a question to be answered solely in Washington will further strain U.S. relations with Iraq and the Arab world.

I couldn’t agree more about the perils of Washington-centricism but I’m worried about US withdrawal from Iraq  from the other direction. — too fast rather than too slow.  Yes, there is a relative sense of security in the year 2009 and a strong case can be made that the US presence is playing a role in preventing political reconciliation.  But what about all the really bad things that could still go wrong in Iraq?    What happens if we withdraw by 2010 as promised but the day after all hell breaks out and the country descends into serious sectarian warfare?  That’s clearly not in the interests of the US or any of its allies in the region.  But here’s the problem:  Once American troops leave Iraq, they’re not going back.   It will be very difficult diplomatically and especially on the domestic political level to reinsert 50-60 thousand combat troops back into Iraq to restore security but if all hell breaks lose in Iraq, there’s no doubt that the US will be called on to do just that….

So I think the “Stupidest Man” is spot-on.  Most people agree that launching the war in Iraq was extremely stupid to begin with, but that’s irrelevant now.  We, the United States, do own the country, or at least have certain obligations to it:

My worry is that we have come to see Iraq as somehow separate from the rest of the world, as if the country existed in its own war-damaged vacuum. The result is that while we have paid much attention to the internal dynamics of Iraqi politics and the ebb and flow of the security situation, we have all but ignored outside forces that can quickly become catalysts for upheaval. One such force is the global recession, which has sent oil prices plummeting and has left Iraq reeling from financial shock. This is probably the biggest threat the country now faces, and it’s quite possible that the hard-won security gains will unravel not because of renewed sectarian violence but because of, well, lack of money. Yet this possibility, obvious as it may sound, is nowhere to be seen in Lynch’s list of contingencies. What is even more troubling is that because of our tunnel vision, none of us saw it coming. What else is there that we’re not seeing?

So, yes — I do think the prudent thing for Obama to do is to go slow. After six years of disaster, the United States owes it to Iraq not to pull the plug in haste. It may not matter that vast areas of the country, such as Nineweh and Diyala, “remain kinetic”, as an Iraq-savvy commenter put it in FP; but it matters a great deal if the whole country goes up in flames while America watches. If you thought the invasion was bad for the U.S. image and ultimately demoralising for Americans, just think what that would do.

And all COIN types in Washington should read the Stupidest Man’s blog  for a daily dose of the security issues of Afghanistan/ Pakistan/Iraq  from a non-American, perspective.

2 Responses

  1. […] Arabic Media Shack, they wonder if the troop withdrawal may be too fast. They point out that once American troops withdraw they […]

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