In what might be the initial acknowledgment that the scheduled withdrawal of American forces from Iraq might be premature, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates stated that he was open to keeping troops in Iraq beyond the 2011 deadline. If that were to happen, the Iraqi government would have to request it in accordance with an agreement between the United States and Iraq.
Given the recent agreement (after eight months of stalemate) between Iraq's major political parties on the composition of the new government, that request may not be forthcoming. The new government will be under significant influence from Iran, given the fact that incumbent Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki will retain his office with support from radical Shi'a cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. Both al-Maliki and al-Sadr are favorites of Tehran. The last thing Iran wants is the extended presence of American troops in Iraq, or anywhere in the Middle East for that matter. (See my earlier piece, Iraqi parties agree to new government - finally.)
Part of the 2008 status of forces agreement between Iraq and the United States calls for the withdrawal of all American forces from Iraq by the end of 2011. The United States, in response to a political decision by the Obama Administration, allegedly withdrew all of combat units from Iraq in August of this year. I'll forgo the redesignation of combat brigades to "advisor brigades" as part of this charade, but much of the U.S. Army's combat power was removed from the country.
Almost immediately after the last Stryker brigade left the country, internecine violence escalated in the country. The violence was especially concentrated against Shi'a religious targets, an obvious attempt by the remaining al-Qa'idah in Iraq (AQI, also known as al-Qa'idah in Mesopotamia) elements to re-ignite the sectarian violence that served them well prior to the U.S. surge of late 2007 and early 2008.
Events in Iraq only serve to highlight the folly of specific timetables for withdrawal of combat forces. While such timetables and deadlines make for excellent political soundbites, they do not take into consideration the reality on the ground. When you announce a timetable in military operations, you have basically handed your enemy the information he needs to continue the fight. In counterinsurgency operations, this is deadly.
In Afghanistan, the situation is similar. The much-publicized June 2011 date has emboldened the Taliban and intimidated the government of President Hamid Karzai into talks with the jihadist organization. More importantly, the withdrawal date has put American troops at greater risk as villages in the disputed areas are reluctant to cooperate with American, NATO and Afghan forces. They believe, possibly legitimately, that the troops will not be there in the future; they know full well that the Taliban surely will be. Many have assessed that the United States and NATO do not have the necessary political will to stay the course.
As long as we as a country continue to establish these politically-expedient, militarily-senseless arbitrary timetables, we not only jeopardize the success of our foreign policy objectives, we put American troops at risk.