James Jeffrey, the new US Ambassador to Iraq, told reporters that the US would consider a request to keep troops in Iraq beyond the December 2011 deadline for withdrawal. He added that, if the United States does stay, the Iraqis would have to help with security of the troops on the bases.
The only thing missing from this transaction is any actual request from the Iraqi government. It’s really quite remarkable how many comments like this have appeared. This is the US Ambassador echoing the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs and the former Secretary of Defense, saying in public that the US would be happy to stay in Iraq if asked. They haven’t been asked, and we’re less than 6 months from the deadline for withdrawal, but these public statements obviously imply a behind-the-scenes push to ensure a presence beyond the end of the year.
Now there’s a media component to all this lobbying. As Spencer Ackerman finds, the New York Times just so happened to get an embed with some elite Iraqi forces, who just so happened to tell the reporter that the US troops need to stay.
But Iraqi and American commanders worry that this crucial military legacy of the war may be at risk now that American forces are withdrawing this year under an agreement between the countries. Americans say the Iraqi special operations force, which was deliberately balanced with the country’s main sects and ethnicities, is more capable than the Iraqi Army and may be critical in preventing a resilient insurgency from exploding into a sectarian civil war. Even as few Iraqi politicians are willing to admit publicly that they need American help, Iraqi soldiers say that American troops must stay longer to continue training and advising.
“The Americans need to stay because we don’t have control over our borders,” said Maj. Gen. Fadhel al-Barwari, commander of the Iraq Special Operations Force.
“Would we hope after spending eight years in this country, sharing blood, sweat and tears, dying side by side, working with each other, that we would maintain a relationship?” Col. Scott E. Brower, commander of the Combined Joint Special Operations Task Force-Arabian Peninsula, said in an interview at a base north of Baghdad. “Of course we would.”
Ackerman takes this as further proof that the extension will happen. He parses Leon Panetta’s statement that our future commitment in Iraq must not be “based solely” on our military footprint to read that the footprint will surely be a part of it. And he notes Adm. William McRaven’s statement that some commandos would have to stay beyond the deadline as well.
And since the new White House counterterrorism strategy boils down to “kill anyone anywhere with drones and commandos who we think might have so much as plus-one’d al-Qaeda,” Iraq can’t very well fall off that list. You can also bet that Panetta and McRaven don’t want to cede Iraq to Iranian influence, no matter how many times we have to be reminded that a democratic Iraq is going to be comfortable with Teheran.
No one in the United States gives a shit about Iraq anymore. “Forgotten war” doesn’t begin to cover it. Iraq feels like a fever dream, reduced from a charnel house to a flipped cable-news channel to the absurdity of a lame Meek Mill lyric. So I wonder if there would be any political consequence to Obama putting an asterisk on his promise to end the war. (There’s a qualitative difference, I think we can agree, between U.S. forces used for training foreign allies and those used for hunting and killing people [even if, yes, sometimes training involves going on raids].) Absolutely nothing in Obama’s record as president suggests that he makes hard, declarative uncaveated statements on foreign policy. Obama 2012: He Ended* The Iraq War. It won’t be true. Just true enough for American appetites.
This is all probably right. But there’s something ominous in the words of James Jeffrey. He says that the troops will stay, but the Iraqis had better help with security. He’s seen the unraveling of base security over the last month, the deadliest for US troops in Iraq in the past two years. He knows that troops will be specifically targeted by the Sadrists if they stay. If we need the Iraqi’s help to stay in the country, it begs the question of what purpose staying serves? The answer, of course, has little to do with the stability of Iraq and more to do with the counter-terrorism strategy of prosecuting a series of shadow wars with covert operatives. But in a country that wants the US to leave, the special ops forces can’t be that hidden.
It seems to me we don’t leave anywhere militarily unless chased. And this scenario would set up as at least somewhat likely for us to be chased, especially if a broader nationalist element creeps into the picture. I would expect mass protests inside Iraq demonstrating against the US presence. The first time we shoot unarmed protesters, the trajectory could go the way of Tunisia or Egypt.