July 30, 2011

American troops to remain in Iraq? Hopefully...

The author with Jalal Talabani in northern Iraq – 1996

Reality sets in

Iraqi President Jalal Talabani has called a series of meetings to discuss the possibility of continued American troop presence in Iraq after the December 31, 2011 deadline for the withdrawal of U.S. forces from the country. The key players at the meeting will be Talabani, Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki and Foreign Minister Hoshyar al-Zebari.

There will be other political leaders in attendance at the meeting - a decision is needed fairly quickly if any American forces are to remain. The meeting is in probable response to calls by U.S. Vice President Joe Biden asking if a request for a continued troop presence was forthcoming. This is an interesting reversal from an Administration that could not remove American forces fast enough.

It appears that some of the senior Iraqi and American political leadership recognize that Iraqi military and security forces are not capable of maintaining order in the country. The Iraqi leadership does not want the situation in the country to deteriorate into a new round of sectarian violence, and the Obama Administration does not want to be blamed for squandering the gains made by American forces after the troop surge of 2007-2008. Both Iraqi and American officials concede that the situation in Iraq has worsened over the past year - about the same time when all U.S. combat forces were withdrawn from the country.

If there is a request for some American troops to remain, it will likely be framed as a request for “training and assistance” rather than a security presence. That is merely semantics, a fig leaf - the current American forces in the country involved in training and assistance operations are combat capable. Prime Minister Al-Maliki will want a parliamentary decision – that allows him political cover with his Iranian sponsors who want all American forces out of the entire Gulf region, not just Iraq. Al-Maliki is in a delicate position. While his Iranian sponsors are providing weapons and training to sectarian forces responsible for recent American casualties, he will likely have to adopt a position that counters Tehran's wishes.

The Kurdish dimension

There is another dynamic in play here. Both President Talabani and Foreign Minister Zebari are Kurds; Talabani was the Secretary General of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan and Zebari was a senior official of the rival Kurdish Democratic Party. The Kurds, who have established the Kurdish Autonomous Region (KAR) in northern Iraq – the most stable and prosperous section of the country – view the Americans as the ultimate guarantor of their continued security and prosperity and want a continued American presence in the country. The Kurds’ continued security concern is not sectarian violence, but ethnic violence from the Arab majority of Iraq.

The Kurds have been at loggerheads with central government in Baghdad since they established the KAR in 2005 in accordance with the new Iraqi constitution. The Kurds have tried to negotiate oil contracts with foreign oil companies to exploit oil fields in the northern part of Iraq, including oil fields near the contested city of Kirkuk that technically are not within the current KAR boundaries. The Kurds are adopting a hard line on the future status of the city. They insist it is part – some call it the capital - of the Kurdish area, while the Iraqi government is concerned about the Arab and Turkoman minorities who also reside in the oil-rich city.

The American perspective

Despite the Obama Administration’s political agenda to remove American troops as soon as possible, it appears that some of Obama's advisors at the Pentagon and State Department realize that a continued American presence is desirable on several levels. First, to simply leave an unstable situation - it is unstable and getting worse - is not in the interests of either the United States or Iraq. It might play well for the Iranians, something this Administration has overlooked in the past.

Second, as long as the United States has interests in the Persian Gulf region, meaning as long as we are dependent on foreign oil, it will be necessary to have a viable American military presence in the region. Although the U.S. Navy's Fifth Fleet is headquartered in Bahrain, political unrest there may cause that venue to be untenable in the future.

There is no country in the Middle East more suitable than Iraq for an American military presence. The country has adequate infrastructure and is centrally located. It allows the United States to almost surround with allies two countries led by regimes of concern: Iran and Syria. Having American troops and combat aircraft in Iraq would provide a credible deterrent to these countries. Of course, that assumes this Administration is willing to review - and reverse - its failed "engagement" policies with Tehran and Damascus.

American troops in Iraq after the end of the year? It's a good idea.