America must keep some forces in Iraq past the December 2011 deadline or face potentially serious consequences.
Last week, U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates visited Baghdad to offer the Iraqis the option of extending the deadline for withdrawing the remaining 47,000 American troops. Not accepting that offer has serious implications for Iraq and the region.
A continued, albeit smaller, American presence in Iraq is needed past the deadline to complete Iraq’s security preparedness, deter Iran’s hegemonic activities, and provide a stabilizing influence to the wobbly oil-rich region.
But there are reasons our troops may withdraw on schedule in spite of the aforementioned challenges.
Iraq is a sovereign nation that may decide it no longer wants American troops because of public pressure and politics.
Last Friday, thousands of Iraqis called for the withdrawal of U.S. troops in an anti-American rally in Baghdad. That demonstration and others across the country marked the eighth anniversary of Saddam Hussein’s fall, and more protests are expected as the deadline nears.
The political debate over whether to delay the U.S. troop withdrawal is as lively as the street protests. Ali al-Dabbagh, an Iraqi government spokesman, told Xinhau News that Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki informed Gates during their meeting last week that Iraq does not want U.S. troops past the 2011 deadline.
Maliki may really want American troops to extend their stay, but he is hemmed in by a bloc of politicians loyal to the anti-American cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, who helped the prime minister secure a second term. Ali al-Musawi, the prime minister’s media adviser, told Al Hayat online, “The security agreement cannot be extended without the acceptance of all the Iraqi political forces.”
Some political blocs support an extension, while others, such as al-Sadr and the al-Ahrar Party bloc, oppose it. Abd-al-Hadi al-Hassani, a member of the State of Law coalition, told AKnews, “The Iraqi government is likely to submit a request to the administration [that] the U.S. Army keep part of its forces in Iraq for training purposes. …”
The bottom line is that no one knows whether Maliki will muster support to ask for an extension, but it may not matter anyway.
President Barack Obama may withdraw the offer before the Iraqis make up their minds. An extension is politically risky for Obama, who promised to bring an end to America’s involvement in Iraq. That promise, coupled with dwindling popular support for our troops in Iraq and budgetary pressures in Washington, make any extension politically problematic for Obama, who just launched his uphill reelection campaign.
But before either leader decides this issue, he should consider two reasons to extend America’s armed presence in Iraq .
First, American forces are needed to guarantee Iraq’s security during a politically volatile period, to fill remaining security voids, and to complete security training.
Iraq continues to face serious security challenges, in part because of the unsettled political situation. Specifically, Baghdad still does not have defense or interior ministers more than a year after parliamentary elections and four months after the government formed.
These ministries link daily operational information to the nation’s security strategy. Critical decisions and long-term plans are waiting for the new leaders. But in the meantime, American forces are the “glue holding Iraq together through a rocky period,” according to U.S. Ambassador Jim Jeffrey.
In addition, Gen. Lloyd Austin, commander of U.S. forces in Iraq , said Iraq has serious military shortfalls, such as an inability to defend its skies, and will lose radar and intelligence capabilities when America leaves.
Iraqi army chief of staff Gen. Babakir Zebari agrees with Austin’s assessment. Zebari said on Radio Nawa on March 27 that his forces are prepared “to deal with any emergency in the cities,” but “the biggest weakness in the makeup of the Iraqi army lies in the air force.” Prime Minister Maliki tried to address Iraq’s air force shortfall with the purchase of 18 American F-16 fighters, but public protests put that deal on hold.
Gen. Austin agrees that the Iraqi ground forces are well-trained, but he thinks Iraq needs a U.S. military presence to continue training those forces on modern equipment past 2011. Iraq is purchasing sophisticated American tanks and howitzers, Austin explained, and its soldiers need tutored training or they will have to learn to use these complicated systems without American assistance.
Second, American forces are needed to deter Iran’s meddling in Iraq, and especially throughout the Persian Gulf. Specifically, our forces must back up Iraqi forces against Iranian interference, and the presence of our troops is needed to reassure our jittery Arab allies against Iran’s Islamist influence.
Iran enjoys a significant covert presence inside Iraq. Its Shiite militia have infiltrated the Iraqi security forces and it has armed extremist groups that attack both American and Iraqi forces. It is also politically influential with Baghdad’s government through proxies such as Iranian-educated cleric al-Sadr.
Tehran ignores Iraq’s territorial sovereignty and will become more assertive once the U.S. leaves. Last week, Iran shelled the Free Life for Kurdistan, a rebel group, inside northern Iraq. Iranian forces have violated Iraq’s territorial sovereignty untold times during the past decade.
Just as Iran takes advantage of Iraq’s security and political instability, it is taking advantage of the regional uprisings to destabilize its Sunni Arab rivals. Secretary Gates noted Iran’s region-wide meddling during his recent visit. The U.S. has “evidence that the Iranians are trying to exploit the situation in Bahrain,” Gates told the Wall Street Journal. He continued, “We also have evidence that they are talking about what they can do to try and create problems elsewhere as well.” Iran ’s meddling is predictable.
Exporting the Islamic revolution is “the primary goal” of the Islamic Republic, according to Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the revolution’s founder. Meddling is really what Iranian former President Mohammad Khatami says the regime must do to persuade other Muslim nations to take the path of Islamic revolution. Otherwise, Tehran faces the ideological danger posed by the emergence of Western-style democracies, such as in Iraq.
Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed, foreign minister of the United Arab Emirates, accused Iran of meddling—“‘conspiring to destabilize the Gulf States by smuggling guns and saboteurs,” according to the New York Post. He is especially concerned about reports of Iranian proxies such as Hezbollah entering Bahrain via Iran in order to attack security forces. Saudi Arabia, which came to Bahrain’s defense, accuses Tehran of hegemonic ambitions—seeking to create a “Shiite crescent” spanning from Iran to the Mediterranean Sea and encompassing Iraq, Bahrain, Syria, Yemen, Lebanon, Gaza, and eastern Saudi Arabia. Iran’s actions will not be easily contained.
Extending our troop commitment to Baghdad, even with a smaller force, ensures Iraq has every chance to succeed. And those troops will provide the added benefit of reassuring nervous oil-rich Gulf allies who must quickly resolve their domestic unrest while the region works together on a long-term solution to Tehran’s hegemonic interference.