This Week at War, No. 23
What the four-stars are reading -- a weekly column from Small Wars Journal.
U.S. soldiers won't be back to Iraq
U.S. soldiers won’t be back to Iraq
The government of Iraq declared June 30th a national holiday as it celebrated the planned withdrawal of U.S. combat forces from Iraq’s cities. The celebration, which included a military parade in Baghdad, was marred by a car bombing in Kirkuk.
In an interview by satellite with the Pentagon press corps, General Ray Odierno, the U.S. commander in Iraq, explained that the removal of U.S. combat forces from Iraq’s cities was both more and less than it seemed. He asserted that people familiar with day-to-day life in Iraq’s cities would certainly notice the absence of U.S. patrols and combat outposts. On the other hand, Odierno reminded the reporters that the United States’s 12 combat brigades continue to execute "full spectrum operations" outside Iraq’s cities.
Last February, President Barack Obama announced his administration’s plan for Iraq. To implement the Status of Forces Agreement (SoFA) negotiated in 2008, the Obama administration intends to completely withdraw all U.S. combat forces by August 31, 2010, leaving 35,000-50,000 soldiers for training, support, counterterrorism, and force protection duties. By the end of 2011, both the SoFA and the administration’s plan call for the final departure of U.S. forces.
Obama’s disdain for the decision to invade Iraq is well-known. He campaigned for the presidency promising to end the U.S. military presence in Iraq and has frequently asserted that Iraq’s future is the responsibility of Iraqi society and its leaders.
But some analysts are skeptical that Obama’s plan will really lead to withdrawal. Writing on his Foreign Policy blog, the Center for a New American Security’s Tom Ricks believes that Iraq will unravel, forcing the Obama administration to abandon its over-optimistic plan. On the other side, Duke Professor and former National Security Council staffer Peter Feaver wonders, in a post on FP‘s Shadow Government blog, whether the Administration’s plan risks squandering the payments the United States has made in Iraq. Misguided or not, the president seems highly committed to his plan. What possible change in circumstances would it take to force him to scrap it?
Only Obama can answer this question, but I believe it is safe to assume that Iraq’s unraveling would have to be very severe indeed to compel him to reinsert U.S. combat brigades back into urban combat. At a practical level, the growing U.S. combat commitment in Afghanistan removes much of the capacity to significantly reinforce Iraq. Politically, President Obama would wish to avoid disappointing some of his most passionate supporters. And at a personal level, President Obama has none of the commitment to Iraq that President Bush had.
What are the "metrics of failure" that could compel a turnaround in Obama’s Iraq policy? Domestic Iraqi political difficulties would not likely suffice to change existing U.S. plans. Car bombs in Sadr City, Sunni versus Shiite fighting in west Baghdad, or Arab versus Kurdish bloodletting over Kirkuk, even if at 2007 levels, likely won’t be enough change Obama’s mind. He will view these problems as Iraq’s, not his. The U.S. media is likely to sympathize with this view, reducing pressure on Obama to change course.
One thing that could change Obama’s plan is the growing foreign influence inside Iraq. The top concern here is Iran. Happily, the Shiite religious parties most closely tied to Tehran performed poorly in last January’s provincial elections, but they’re hoping for a better showing in the January 2010 parliamentary elections. Second, can al Qaeda form a sanctuary inside Iraq from which it could launch global operations? That does not seem like a concern. Finally, an Iraqi government might feel the need to demonstrate its independence from the United States by fashioning an informal alliance with China or Russia that undermines U.S. interests in the region.
But even here, increased large-scale U.S. military action inside Iraq hardly seems the solution for these scenarios. Iraq may or may not fall back into renewed civil warfare. There is a remote chance it may succumb to unfriendly (to the U.S.) foreign influence. But none of these events will bring U.S. infantrymen back to the streets of Baghdad or Basra.
Who in the government is "expeditionary" and who is irrelevant?
On June 25th, eight former U.S. secretaries of state (Henry Kissinger, George Shultz, James Baker, Lawrence Eagleburger, Warren Christopher, Madeleine Albright, Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice) published an article in Politico calling for more congressional funding for the State Department. The secretaries argued that U.S. foreign policy will not be effective until the diplomacy and development portions of that policy are fully staffed with trained and funded civilian personnel. They noted that the additional funding needed for the Foreign Service and other civilian enablers of foreign policy are a tiny fraction of the Pentagon’s annual budget.
Few object to this argument, least of all Defense Secretary Robert Gates, and Joint Chiefs Chairman Admiral Mike Mullen. The question that remains is how eager the civilian portions of the U.S. government are to become truly "expeditionary"? How willing are foreign service officers, along with officials from Treasury, Agriculture, Justice, Centers for Disease Control, etc., to spend prolonged stretches of their careers in remote and dangerous outposts in some of the darkest corners of the world?
The era of "persistent irregular conflict," if that is what we are in, will not occur in European or Asian capitals, but at forward operating bases and combat outposts. In these cases, the interlocutors of U.S. diplomats and development specialists will in many cases be tribal and non-state groups rather than government officials.
During this decade, the U.S. military has adapted to this reality. As it has done so, its uniformed members and contractors have in many cases taken over diplomatic and development tasks that had been previously performed by civilian portions of the government and drawn funding away from them. The "militarization" of U.S. foreign policy is now worrisome, even (or especially) to the top officials in the Pentagon.
There are thousands of foreign service officers and other civilian employees of the U.S. government out in the field doing their work under difficult conditions. But are their agencies back in Washington adapting as well as the Pentagon has? In order to remain relevant, everyone, not just the military, needs to get expeditionary.
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