Judging by their post position in his “Moment of Opportunity,” President Barack Obama ranks Iraq and Afghanistan among his foremost achievements in a young foreign policy. Often criticized as too vague and indecisive, Obama has taken a hands off, back-room approach to the fast-paced and complex nature of geopolitics, preferring to delegate all but the major decisions.
His cabinet bristles at the notion of him being disconnected from foreign affairs, and Obama speaks with a confidence that verges on the absurd.
“Already, we have done much to shift our foreign policy following a decade defined by two costly conflicts,” he begins before addressing Osama bin Laden’s death. “After years of war in Iraq, we have removed 100,000 American troops and ended our combat mission there. In Afghanistan, we have broken the Taliban’s momentum, and this July we will begin to bring our troops home and continue transition to Afghan lead.”
However some executive decisions also exceed his control as a figurehead, and Iraq’s withdrawal is trending in that direction. At this very moment unarmed members of the Mahdi Army are marching through Sadr City, a Baghdad slum that pays allegiance to Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. Updated figures estimate their number at 18,000. With U.S. officials provoking an intense debate within Iraq’s parliament over the extended presence of U.S. troops, al-Sadr ordered the march to inject himself into the political debate through his most powerful asset.
They demand a firm commitment to the December 31st, 2011 withdrawal deadline.
According to U.S. military officials, Obama is prepared to approve a 10,000 unit force to remain for an undisclosed number of years. An Iraqi media outlet reported a plan of 20,000. Either way, both the Obama administration and Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki hope to extend the deadline in the near future. And they share the same obstacle: al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army, which is threatening to activate in the event of continual “occupation.”
Although the Army committed itself to grassroots organizing since a 2008 ceasefire, it has stockpiled a bounty of weapons and issued a steady flow of threats against an extension. Ali al-Kufi, Sadr’s head of media affairs in Najaf, told The Washington Post, “The march is a way we say... in case the American forces insist on staying... we have a military choice to face them.”
The final question, then, is whether al-Sadr will risk his political gains and pull the trigger on a military campaign. While no party in the Iraq’s parliament wants to take ownership of the SOFA, each hoping a mandate is reached without offering themselves up first, al-Sadr’s party stands to lose more than anyone else. Part of his political platform is based on defeating the U.S. occupation, and it’s credibility is already facing a direct attack before a potential conflict.
Yet Sadr’s party is also aware of al-Maliki and Washington’s plot. In pushing for something that the Sunnis and Kurds privately seek, they hope to isolate al-Sadr politically and tempt him into overreacting militarily. Baiting him into becoming an enemy of the state could offer justification to restrict or shut down his entire operation.
Sadr party officials have tried to shape a nationalistic Iraqi narrative over al-Sadr's personal message.
Only the Army’s mobilization wouldn’t break Obama’s promise even if U.S. troops suddenly found themselves in combat operations again. Three days after Obama reaffirmed “combat missions” as over, two U.S. troops were killed in an IED attack in Baghdad. 16 U.S. troops in all have been killed in hostile incidents since Obama declared combat missions over in August 2010, in addition to 19 “non-hostile” fatalities.
Now he’s prepared to sign off on Defense Secretary Robert Gates’ troop extension.
If and when Obama administration renegotiated Iraq’s Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA), it will be done mostly against Obama’s personal will. He may acquiesce under the rationale that Iraq’s practical reality demands an extension, and its security situation is still far from livable on a daily basis. The renewed presence of U.S. troops could destabilize the environment as well. U.S. troops are deployed to counter Iran first, help Iraqis second.
"It would be reassuring to the Gulf States,” said Gates, always happy to do Saudi Arabia's biding. “It would not be reassuring to Iran, and that is a good thing.”
The Defense Secretary has angled al-Maliki since coming onboard the Obama administration. He’s tried so many times that an extension appears to be a given, contrary to Obama’s pledge to remove all U.S. troops by 2012. Meanwhile the White House has ignored Gates’s politicking, refusing to diverge from the scheduled time-line. Campaign promises would be broken - Afghanistan’s deadlines would start to look shaky too.
Except Obama is finally relenting. Although blatantly lying about the end of Iraq’s combat operations, never does he actually commit to a 2011 withdrawal. Soon, if Gates can corner al-Sadr with al-Maliki’s help, he will approve an extension to maintain Iraq’s sovereignty, or something to that effect.
And the Pentagon will get its way again in a foreign country.