Monday, March 02, 2009

Obama's Iraq War exit plan

When will peace come to Iraq? (The photo is of a destroyed French village in the First World War)

Juan Cole, who has consistently been one of the best commentators on the Iraq War - he's an expert on Shi'a Islam and actually know Arabic and Persian - writes about Obama's exit plan announced last week in We're really leaving Iraq Salon 03/03/09.

He's basically pretty positive about Obama's exit plan:

Obama cannot afford to make his calculations about Iraq solely with an eye to domestic American politics. He extended his original proposal of a 16-month withdrawal of active combat brigades to 18 months so as to leave more troops in place to help with the next Iraqi parliamentary elections, scheduled for December 2009. It is ... the case that Iraqi elections can still only go forward if the country is locked down and vehicular traffic forbidden, preventing car-bombings and coordinated guerrilla strikes. It might be possible for the Iraqi military to provide security for national elections in 2013 should the country's future ruler or rulers deign to hold them, but the Iraqi military cannot hope to do so this year.
Just to be clear, I would have preferred a rapid drawdown on something like a one-year schedule. The presence of American troops is in itself a major risk of the fighting escalating.

I'm not trashing Obama's plan at the moment. But I'm still going to take a very skeptical view of that situation. For one thing - a major thing - it's to some extent a rhetorical trick to call the 50,000 troops he plans to have there after August 2010 "non-combat" troops. All the troops there are in a real practical sense potential combat troops.

But the momentum is in the right direction. The Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) requires that all US ground troops by out by 2011. And Obama specifically reaffirmed that he intended to abide by that commitment.

Prime Minister al-Maliki achieved new popularity with the SOFA because it gets the US troops out. There is still a national referendum coming on the SOFA, which will create even more political pressure in Iraq for the US to exist completely. With the prospect of a less hostile relationship to the US, Iran also has incentive for the moment to discourage any escalation in violence in Iraq against the US and to see the SOFA withdrawal schedule observed.

The Cheney-Bush administration never built up more than a rudimentary Iraqi air force. So building up a minimal air force for normal national defense creates a dependence and need for US assistance in that regard. Cole writes:

Iraq's military also continues to need logistical support from U.S. forces. ...

Although Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki has had military successes during the past year, in the southern port of Basra and in Sadr City (east Baghdad), against the Mahdi Army militia, these campaigns depended heavily on U.S. close air support. Iraq lacks an air force and it will take years to create one. One caveat about Obama's pledge to remove troops by the end of 2011 is that he cannot possibly be including the U.S. Air Force, which is almost certainly in for a longer mission, but can operate from bases outside Iraq. Without a navy, moreover, Iraq cannot prevent petroleum smuggling via the Persian Gulf, which drains billions from government coffers annually and strengthens militias against the state, and this sort of patrol will fall to the U.S. Navy for some time to come.
All of this reflects the fact that Cheney and Bush intended for Iraq to be a permanent US military base.

But it also repeats in a significant way the situation in Vietnam after the Paris Peace Accords were signed in 1973. The US had trained a massive South Vietnamese Army. But it trained them on American conventional-war approaches, which relied heavily on close-air support, which they proved not capable of providing on their own to anything like the level needed. I haven't encountered much if any commentary on that similarity. But it's there.

I hope Cole's optimism in his conclusion turns out to be justified:

It would be wrong to overlook these simple words: "And under the Status of Forces Agreement with the Iraqi government, I intend to remove all U.S. troops from Iraq by the end of 2011." Though the word "troops" referred to the Army and the Marines, not to the Air Force and Navy, what Obama said on Friday was a firm pledge to leave. And by binding himself to a security agreement formally passed by the Iraqi parliament, Obama was eschewing unilateralism and the patronizing hubris that marked Bush's discourse on Iraq. The Iraqi and Arab press understood this point immediately, and led their accounts of Obama's speech with that sentence abour [sic] removing troops. Obama was not signaling any diffidence about ending the Iraq War before the end of his [first] term. He was attempting to provide for an orderly withdrawal that will ensure that U.S. troops are not drawn back in by a subsequent security collapse. [my emphasis]
For other views on Obama's withdrawal plan, see also:

Partial Peace, Looming War by Tom Hayden The Nation Online 03/01/09. Hayden points out how off-base New York Times reporter Tom Ricks was in his prediction that Obama would plan to hold some kind of permanent residual force in Iraq. Like Juan Cole, Hayden focuses on Obama's commitment to observe the SOFA deadline:

When there was a choice [in 2008] between supporting Barack Obama and attending rallies organized by various Maoists, Trotskyists and neo-anarchists opposed to Obama and electoral politics, the grassroots peace movement headed for the precincts by the thousands. What appeared to Ricks to be a failed antiwar rally in Washington was only evidence that the movement was moving on, becoming a voting force in and around the Obama campaign.

That turned out to be the right strategy for the peace movement when John McCain was defeated in November, but many continued to wonder--with good reason--whether Obama was promising nothing more than partial peace under a new form of military occupation. Now it is clear that somewhere along the way Obama became persuaded that it made little sense to leave 50,000 troops in Iraq when the Pentagon couldn't win with 150,000, the American economy was collapsing and his hands were full in Afghanistan and Pakistan. [my emphasis]
Unlike the Pod Pundits, who see Obama's withdrawal plan as a sign of his standing up against "the left", Hayden - who is generally considered a figure of "the left" - writes, "The greater danger from Iraq for Obama may lie at home politically if Republicans and the generals, echoed by the mainstream media, protest Obama's withdrawal plan as naïve or worse."

War critic Bob Dreyfuss, writing also at The Nation Online, takes a more dour view in Obama's Iraq Plan Ain't It 02/27/09.

The invaluable Gareth Porter reports on Obama's plan in Drawdown Plan May Leave Combat Brigades in Iraq Inter Press Service 02/27/09:

Obama's claim that the U.S. combat mission will end in August 2010 raises the question whether he will call a halt to combat patrols by U.S. personnel embedded with Iraqi units. The sweeping concession made to CENTCOM commander Gen. David Petraeus and Iraq commander Gen. Odierno on the residual force suggests that he will not demand the end of such operations by U.S. troops.

The freedom granted to Odierno and Petraeus on the residual force overshadows his concession to the generals and Gates in accepting the recommendation for 19-month timetable for withdrawing combat brigades.
Former Sen. George McGovern favors a faster withdrawal, as reported in McGovern: Troops Should Come Home This Year 02/27/09:

"I give the President credit for setting a date certain, that's something the previous administration would not do," McGovern said.

But McGovern says waiting 18 months to pull thousands of troops out of Iraq isn't something this country can afford.

"I think we ought to recognize this is a mistake and then cut our losses. I don't mean just race for the border. I mean we should be out of there by September this year not September next year," McGovern said.

And the former Senator doesn't think 50 thousand troops should be left behind to train the Iraqi forces.

"We can't control events in the troubled Middle East. Everybody that's tried to do that has ended up with blood on their hands, blood on the receiving country's hands, and without a clear cut victory," McGovern said.

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