Over a month has passed since the Obama administration’s soft deadline to the Iraqi government, and each side is visibly feeling the pressure over the future of U.S. troops. Ayad Allawi, head of the parliament’s largest party, has largely been frozen out of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s government, but still concedes that “such an extension” to Iraq’s Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) “may be necessary.” Kurdish president Masoud Barzani was more blunt: "In our opinion the need for the U.S. forces in Iraq is still on... the absence of U.S. forces in Iraq means the possibility of civil war will prevail.”
As al-Maliki plots his final moves against his own Shia bloc, primarily cleric Muqtada al-Sadr’s 39 parliamentary seats, counter-rumors have since surfaced in the realm of 3,000-5,000 troops. Potentially leaked by al-Maliki’s own officials to downplay a higher U.S. estimate (and cover an earlier promise that all troops will withdraw), each party has fled from Fox and The New York Times’ reporting. Iraqi officials supporting an extension can’t believe such a low number and neither can a variety of U.S. officials.
One denial is often enough to arouse suspicion in Washington, so what does one do with four?
Asked whether the latest reports were accurate, White House press secretary Jay Carney responded with a succinct "no" on Tuesday. James F. Jeffrey, the U.S. ambassador in Iraq, added that the proposal has "no official status or credibility." Finding himself besieged over Defense Secretary Leon Panetta’s alleged approval, spokesman George Little told reporters that “no decisions on troop levels have been made. We continue to proceed with troop withdrawals as directed by the president."
Panetta personally announced that “no decision has been made” while speaking at the site of the World Trade Center.
At first these statements appear to extend beyond non-denial denials into full blown rejections. An absolute response is supposed to leave no room for doubt. However human nature often spins towards the opposite, and the truth sounds like its lurking somewhere behind a Baghdad-sized blast wall. Not long ago the White House denied “premature” reports that 30,000 additional troops were headed to Afghanistan, only for Obama to deploy 30,000 the following month. Nor is any administration official actually denying that a body of U.S. troops will remain in Iraq past 2011, only that no decision has been formally approved.
Obama’s current position stands as follows: the U.S. government will meet its commitment to withdrawal all troops by the end of 2011, but will consider any security request by the Iraqi government.
This hedged position, to the administration's credit, hasn’t changed since Obama came to office; the U.S. media remains focused on “breaking his promise” even though this point has been rendered irrelevant. Obama openly admitted his duplicitous policy from the start and continues to do so now. His press secretary, Jay Carney, explained, “The President has I think made abundantly clear for a long time now that he will end and has ended our efforts in Iraq, our combat efforts, responsibly... And what our relationship looks like going forward with Iraq will depend upon our negotiations with the Iraqi government.”
The administration has been far less transparent on Iraq’s overall policy. Seeing a national election in March 2010 as a test of the new government, U.S. military officials eventually gave way to frustration as a political deadlock dragged on for eight months. The administration also discreetly backed al-Maliki over Allawi despite al-Maliki’s loose alliance with al-Sadr. Obama would declared U.S. combat operations over amid the deadlock, only for U.S. troops to continue dying in sporadic insurgent attacks. Carney argued that Obama’s withdrawal has been “incredibly careful and responsible, and has allowed the Iraqis to further build up their security forces and improve their capacities.”
Though glad to be rid of Saddam, few believe that America’s overall mission or withdrawal has been handled responsibly.
While U.S. commanders would partially agree with Carney’s statement, most are also of the opinion that Obama’s drawdown occurred too quickly. The President is under pressure to withdraw not simply because of his campaign promise, but because he must validate his administration’s positive assessment of Iraq. Commanders on the ground are under no such pressure to keep any promise, leaving the Pentagon free to launch a frontal assault against the latest reports. Though built and paid to think militarily, U.S. commanders realize that Iraq’s environment is legitimately unstable. Not that Iraq’s security is foremost on their minds, but they want enough forces to conduct security operations and training.
Under Panetta’s “plan,” U.S. force levels would only allow for the training Iraqi security forces.
"We can't secure everybody with only 3,000 on the ground nor can we do what we need to with the Iraqis," said one military source. "There is almost no room for security operations in that number; it will be almost purely a training mission.”
The present explanation is that the Iraqi cabinet insisted an exclusive training mission, and Panetta’s “recommendation fell within the confines of what the Iraqis said they need.” However the Pentagon’s weight gives reason to believe that the force level will ultimately increase, not necessarily to the 16,000 troops requested by senior commander Gen. Lloyd J. Austin III, but above 3,000 combat troops. This force will certainly be amplified by covert operations from JSOC, ran under CIA cover. The Wall Street Journal reports that U.S. military commanders and intelligence officers “are pushing for greater authority to conduct covert operations to thwart Iranian influence.”
According to the WSJ, a presidential “finding” (if approved) will authorize U.S. troops to “shut down the flow of arms from Iran to allied militia groups.” Serving layers of purposes, a continued U.S. presence is conceived to boost Iraq’s psychological state, warn external actors, train troops, conduct combat operations, run covert ops and, as a foothold, may be extended indefinitely. If troop levels are kept at a bare minimum, expect the JSOC and CIA to assume an even greater role.
"A U.S. presence in Iraq, under whatever title, is important for Iraq,” Barzani stated in line with U.S. commanders and Senators.
The major mistake is believing that a larger U.S. force will eventually lead to security, which many Senators appear to be committing. Only now is Iraq back on the U.S. radar, and intermittent attention is hardly an efficient way to conduct foreign policy. Thus security takes on a disproportionate focus over Iraq’s political, economic and social spheres, when the presence of U.S. troops could prolong the insurgency. Meanwhile few U.S. officials gave any attention to al-Maliki’s suppression of Arab Spring-inspired protests, with Allawi condemning the government for “using blatant dictatorial tactics and intimidation to quell opposition, ignoring the most basic human rights.”
“It is not too late to reverse course,” he concludes. “But the time to act is now. Extending the U.S. troop presence will achieve nothing on its own. More concerted political engagement is required at the highest levels to guarantee the promise of freedom and progress made to the Iraqi people, who have suffered and sacrificed so much and are running out of patience.”
This is the soundest advice U.S. officials will find in Iraq. Instead of allowing al-Maliki to act as he sees fit, he and Allawi must be supported equally. Iraqi officials have accused the administration of tuning out since the launch of Afghanistan’s surge, and now is the time to correct this error. Difficult and potentially unrealistic as it may be, Washington also needs to find some compromise around al-Sadr - unless, of course, the Pentagon is looking for another fight.
Yet none of these developments alter the reality that America is running of time and troops in Iraq. Nothing can be done to preserve a “victory” that never existed.