Editors note: what follows was originally an essay written on October 7th, 2011, and in light of “U.S. President Barack Obama, announcing today that “the rest of our troops will come home by the end of the year,”” it seemed especially relevant.
On August 31st, 2010, President Barack Obama declared “that the American combat mission in Iraq has ended. Operation Iraqi Freedom is over, and the Iraqi people now have lead responsibility for the security of their country.” It was broadly welcomed news; detractors focused not on the continued value of the United States remaining in Iraq but instead on how many American forces remained in a country where the war was ostensibly over. As the agreed-upon withdrawal deadline for all US forces to leave Iraq draws close, it is important that the follow through with its prior commitment, and not be tempted to remain.
Yet the White House has left open the possibility that as many as 10,000 troops will remain past the December 21st withdrawal deadline. The principal thrust of the arguments for a continued U.S. presence in Iraq is that U.S. forces are needed to provide a counterweight to Iran, and without them the stability of the region would be jeopardized. This is a precarious claim. Iran has primarily acted in Iraq by arming Shi’ite proxies to attack U.S. ground troops. Given this, Micah Zenko writes “Iran will continue its behavior as long as there are U.S. soldiers in Iraq to target, which suggests that the surest and fastest way to prevent further bloodshed is to withdraw the remaining U.S. soldiers on schedule.” As such, keeping an active military presence in Iraq beyond the withdrawal could be actively destabilizing.
A second argument in favor of a continued presence is that without the United States there, Iraq will collapse back into sectarian warfare, similar to what was seen in 2004-2007. Such a claim ignores the present reality on the ground in Iraq. As Leif Babin points out, “U.S. troops aren’t patrolling the streets and maintaining security—those duties have almost entirely been handed over to Iraqi Security Forces in the years since 2008.” The Iraqi government has taken over the security duties once provided by American forces. To assume that the nation will collapse without United States soldiers physically present underestimates the successes that have been made since 2007. Such assumptions contribute instead to an impression of both Iraqi frailness and U.S. inability to recognize when it has reached the limits of what it can achieve by force.
The other major reason given for maintaining forces in Iraq is so that the United States can better protect the young government against the intentions of al Qaeda. While a relevant concern, through a combination of successful counter-insurgency work, savvy war-fighting by American forces, and a series of tactical and strategic blunders on the part of al Qaeda, the threat they pose has largely been met by the government of Iraq itself, with the United States involved primarily as support, rather than as the principal agent. Since 2008, al Qaeda has been broadly and explicitly opposed by the various other factions within Iraq to such an extent that “when the Iraqi Shiites observed that the Sunnis were battling al Qaeda themselves and preventing insurgent attacks on the Shiite community, they became less tolerant of the Shiite death squads and militias, whose legitimacy rested on their defense of Shiites against Sunni aggression.” The radical positions taken by al Qaeda in Iraq, in concert with their use of excessive violence, clearly marked them as disruptive foreign interloper intent on exploiting a conflict, as opposed to the United States, a foreign power intent on establishing stability and then leaving. It is the very specter of an exit by the United States that made such home-grown security gains possible. Writing in 2008, Colin Kahl points out that because the United States was able to credibly say that they would be leaving, “U.S. forces came to be seen as less of a threat than either AQI or the Shiite militias — and the risk that U.S. forces would leave pushed the Sunnis to cut a deal to protect their interests while they still could.” To secure these gains, and to make credible any future promise of withdrawal, the United States must stick to the Dec 31st deadline.
Removing persistently deployed ground forces does not preclude the future of Iraqi-American security cooperation. Few serious plans for withdrawal assume a complete absence of strategic assets remaining in the country. Critiquing the persistence of the US presence, Stephen Walt writes “by removing most of the troops, and leaving behind CIA personnel and thousands of contractors, we are pretending to have fulfilled the pledge to leave Iraq.” What Walt sees a false pretense for the withdrawal can instead be read as a reasonable expectation of how the United States will be able to realistically support the government of Iraq while guaranteeing that Iraq remains sovereign in her affairs. Ultimately, when Iraq’s tenuous stability has become more permanent, the security contractors will be less necessary and the CIA will find its role less vital in Iraq, and these numbers too can be drawn down. As Iraq currently is, continued presence of a few thousand security contractors is a far cry from the 166,000 soldiers the United States deployed at the height of the surge, and the mission now is vastly different. The withdrawal of the last 10,000 troops should be acknowledged as a vote of confidence in the government of Iraq.
A future in which Iraq is a stable democracy is not a given, but the United States has fulfilled its obligations to that future. With al Qaeda marginalized and sectarian violence curtailed, there are no more objectives that can be achieved by US soldiers that cannot be done just as successfully by Iraqi forces. In order to preserve those gains, withdrawal should proceed as scheduled in Article 24 of the 2008 Status of Forces Agreement between the United States and the Republic of Iraq.