Over the past few weeks, top U.S. officials have started to publicly press the Iraqi government to decide whether it will allow thousands of American troops to stay in the country after the expiration of the Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) on December 31st. On recent trips to Iraq, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Michael Mullen appeared to signal that the U.S. government desires a continued American military presence past the end of the year. "Time is short for any negotiations to occur," Admiral Mullen warned last week.
In one sense there is less here than meets the eye. Secretary Gates and Admiral Mullen are probably less concerned with whether Iraq wants the troops or not than with simply getting an answer for practical purposes. Complying with the SOFA’s requirement that all American troops leave is a massive logistical undertaking, and it would be much better to know whether a residual force will be needed before the final stages of withdrawal begin in earnest this summer. Any extension of the U.S. military presence if troops were to remain past the 2011 withdrawal deadline requires a request by the Iraqi government. U.S. officials hoped that the Iraqi government would share their own assessment of the lack of readiness of the country’s security forces and ask for a continued presence sufficiently far in advance of the deadline to enable an orderly transition. Instead, the Iraqi government has been bogged down in its own internal troubles and has made no official moves toward renegotiating.
But the problem is that, while cajoling Iraq into giving an answer, American leaders send a counterproductive, if unintended, signal that the United States wants a longer-term military presence. To be sure, there is some basis for such a position: a residual American force could continue to train Iraqi forces, provide intelligence and other important support capabilities, and, in northern Iraq, help maintain the peace between the forces of Baghdad and the autonomous Kurdish government. Iraq is also incapable of defending its borders and airspace from external threats. Yet however well-intentioned or seemingly obvious these arguments seem in Washington, they are unlikely to sway the Iraqi government because they ignore the domestic imperatives faced by Iraq’s political leaders.
The U.S. military presence is and always has been unpopular, and the politicians in power have strong incentives to appear independent and unyielding in dealings with the United States. The constituency that supports maintaining American troops in the country — which includes Kurds, some Sunni Arab factions, and parts of the security establishment — is small compared to the broad-based view that it is past time for American forces to leave. Even Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has an ironic record of portraying himself as the country’s liberator from American occupation. Secretary Gates’ suggestion that U.S. troops could stay longer prompted protests across Baghdad and warnings from influential cleric Moqtada al-Sadr that a continued presence would reignite violent resistance. Al-Sadr’s loyalists comprise a key component of al-Maliki’s governing coalition, which helps explain why the Prime Minister has been adamant that the deal is "not subject to extension [or] alteration."
As seen from Baghdad today, the greatest threat to stability in Iraq is not terrorism, foreign invasion, or even the simmering dispute with the Kurds; it is the prospect of the same kind popular unrest that has already toppled or threatened governments across the Middle East. Major protests have already rocked the country over the past two months as the people demanded that the government provide services that it promised. These protests were serious enough to prompt the government to delay the purchase of F-16 fighter aircraft in favor of spending the money on food supplies, perhaps the strongest possible signal that Baghdad fears domestic uprisings far more than traditional security threats. Delaying the U.S. military’s withdrawal is almost certain to generate more popular outrage, possibly culminating in a return of anti-government militia violence as threatened by al-Sadr. From Baghdad’s perspective, agreeing to an extended American military presence seems more dangerous than taking a chance on the readiness of Iraqi security forces.
Recognizing this calculus, the United States needs to focus primarily on a long-term political and security partnership with Iraq rather than worrying about gaining approval for a residual force. A continued troop presence, if it were even possible to reach an agreement on that, would essentially be another stop-gap security measure; but The United States needs to find innovative ways to offset the loss of troop presence. These include long-term security assistance programs that the United States uses to cultivate strategic partnerships and strong military-to-military ties around the globe, such as major arms sales aimed at enhancing Iraq’s conventional military capacity and International Military Education and Training, which would support Iraqi military officers receiving training from U.S. military institutions. In particular, the Embassy in Baghdad is to include a robust Office of Security Cooperation (OSC-I) to oversee U.S. assistance to Iraqi security forces though the State and Defense Departments do not appear to have agreed upon the office’s structure, manning, and capabilities.
The State Department and the Pentagon should also explore advisory functions that could be continued under OSC-I auspices, even in a more limited way. For example, the Defense Department has initiated a Ministry of Defense Advisors program that sends civilian officials from the Pentagon to mentor high-level officials in the defense ministry; such a program could be equally beneficial for Iraq, and could be offered as an additional form of security assistance through the OSC-I. Additionally, the Embassy plans to have some distributed field presence in northern Iraq; these regional offices could provide bases for a small number of American personnel to observe and report on the continuation of cooperative security measures between Kurdish and Iraqi national forces.
Furthermore, some key services that the U.S. military provides the Iraqi security forces, specifically intelligence and air support, do not need to be based within the country’s borders. There are facilities in Kuwait or elsewhere in the region that could be used to house intelligence analysis activities for Iraq. Combat and logistical air support could also be based outside Iraq, though it would obviously be less responsive to emergency situations.
This approach certainly assumes risk by placing full responsibility for internal security on the Iraqi forces before they reach maximum levels of capability and competence. A continued troop presence may provide some limited security benefits and a false peace of mind to U.S. policymakers but would just as likely provoke more popular unrest and violence — the last thing the United States needs in the region at this time. It is time to look toward a new U.S.-Iraq partnership rather than holding onto the vestiges of the old one.
Brian Burton is the Bacevich Fellow at the Center for a New American Security.