Courtesy Reuters

Stay the Course of Withdrawal

When Should the United States Leave Iraq?

Having held parliamentary elections on March 7 and endured a protracted period of vote counting, Iraqis are now focused on the arduous process of government formation. As this Iraqi drama unfolds, U.S. military forces are preparing to redeploy according to the U.S.-Iraq security agreement of November 2008 and President Barack Obama’s announced timetable for withdrawal. The impending drawdown -- from 96,000 troops today to about 50,000 on September 1, 2010, and zero on January 1, 2012 -- will require the United States to defer increasingly to Iraqis as they dictate their own future.

This, in turn, requires that the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) continue their development. The increased proficiency of the ISF is a main reason why, though Iraqis will continue to endure grievous violence in coming years, there is no longer a broad-based insurgency that poses a strategic threat to the political process or the government. But the ISF’s progress is relatively new: although President George W. Bush said in 2005 that “as the Iraqis stand up, we will stand down,” the ISF has only recently achieved a substantial level of operational independence.

Over the past year, the United States has drawn down more than 40,000 troops while turning over control of Iraqi population centers to the ISF. In September 2009, the Department of Defense reported that the Iraqi army had 189 combat battalions, most of which qualified as being “in the lead” for the purposes of conducting operations. Relatively few of those battalions have achieved Operational Readiness Assessment (ORA) Level 1, meaning that they are logistics-capable units with the ability to function wholly independently. The vast majority of “in the lead” battalions have achieved ORA Level 2; they can plan, execute, and sustain counterinsurgency operations -- but only with U.S. assistance.

Taking an overly pessimistic view of the current political environment and appraising the ISF’s progress stringently, some U.S. commentators have recently been urging the Obama administration to reconsider its timeline, suggesting that its implementation would destabilize Iraq at its moment of greatest vulnerability. But this allegedly realist view of Iraq’s current predicament is decidedly unrealistic about the country it purports to describe. Indeed, for Washington to seek to abrogate its withdrawal commitments -- and thereby suggest that an extended occupation is back on the agenda -- would not enhance security but would undercut the Iraqi government and risk spurring renewed violence. There is simply no political space for such an eventuality. Moreover, these commentators misunderstand the role of U.S. troops in Iraq, which focuses on training, advising, and assisting the ISF -- tasks that, given the ISF’s increasing independence, can be carried out by the residual U.S. troops envisioned.

The ISF displayed that independence during the recent elections, when it took the lead in providing security and did not require any unplanned assistance from the United States. U.S. forces played a background role that did not depend on large numbers of U.S. military personnel.

In the future, even the most forward-deployed U.S. forces (based in northern Iraq along internal boundaries disputed by Arabs and Kurds) will not rely on large numbers of troops. Under current plans, those forces will include two advisory and assistance brigades constituting approximately 7,000–8,000 troops. The commander of U.S. forces in northern Iraq, Major General Anthony Cucolo, recently indicated that he may need 800 additional troops to constitute a sufficient presence along the region’s fault lines. But even with those additional troops, the total number would be well within the parameters of the Obama administration’s plans and existing U.S.-Iraqi agreements.

The past months have shown that violence levels are remaining on a positive overall trajectory even during a critical and tense moment of transition. Although Baghdad witnessed a series of spectacular terrorist attacks in the summer and fall that targeted symbols of government, the sensitive period of campaigning, voting, and vote counting has not seen such devastating attacks or coordinated insurgent activity. This is particularly noteworthy, coming at a time when the ISF has taken greater responsibility and when terrorists would be especially motivated to undermine the political process by executing spectacular attacks.

Despite all this, the ISF continues to have glaring deficiencies in the realms of logistics, intelligence, air power, and border control. In light of these shortcomings, it is possible that Iraqi leaders may request security assistance that goes beyond the scope of the current binding framework to include help controlling airspace and borders, defending critical maritime oil infrastructure, and conducting counterterrorism operations. Under the terms of the security agreement, any such request for assistance would have to be initiated by the Iraqi government, not the United States. If Iraq makes such a request, the Obama administration should give it a fair hearing, balancing any possible future commitments with other pressing U.S. concerns around the world and considering the potential radicalizing effects of a continued U.S. presence.

This would rule out a South Korea–style military commitment or the establishment of permanent military bases, which would be anathema to Iraq’s emerging political culture and unwise in light of current Middle Eastern realities. Instead, such a mission would be limited to temporary advice, assistance, and support, all of which would be contingent on ISF self-sufficiency. At a minimum, such a mission would require an Office of Security Cooperation based in the U.S. embassy, which would be similar to other arrangements Washington has in other regional capitals, where teams of fewer than 1,000 uniformed military personnel manage foreign military sales and limited training programs. Even the upper limit of any such effort -- possibly including military transition teams (small groups of U.S. forces that live with and train Iraqi counterparts), air support, and intelligence programs -- would be temporary in nature, restricted in size to under 10,000 troops, and not intended to establish a strategic beachhead from which to project U.S. power.

Policymakers and analysts too often measure U.S. influence in Iraq according to troop levels. In fact, the United States has become better able to develop a productive relationship with Iraq by abiding by the terms of the security agreement in good faith -- which means reducing troop levels and withdrawing from Iraqi population centers, as the U.S. military did last June. Because of these actions, the U.S. presence was a relatively minor issue in last month’s elections, whereas in the recent past it was the central issue that drove Iraqi politics and fueled a broad-based insurgency. U.S.-Iraqi cooperation is only sustainable if Iraqis do not fear long-term U.S. plans. The United States will be able to play a stabilizing diplomatic role in Iraq’s ongoing political transition only if Washington and Baghdad continue along the path of normalizing bilateral relations. In this sense, it is the very act of withdrawal that will allow the United States to become a strategic partner for the emerging Iraqi state.

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