Bhasin:"Situation on the Ground" or Political Convenience? Thoughts on a US Withdrawal from Iraq

Madhavi Bhasin writes in an IC Guest Editorial:

The most consistent answer to the differently phrased generic query, “When will the U.S. troops withdraw from Iraq?” is “Will be determined by the situation on the ground and U.S. military’s assessment of it.”

Is it really so? Is the U.S. presence in Iraq contingent upon the objective assessment of the security situation in the country? Will the U.S. forces leave only when the security situation improves? Will the U.S. forces ever leave the Iraqi territory? Every analyst of international politics is anticipating the timing and modicum of the U.S. withdrawal strategy. But given the record of U.S. involvement in such conflicts, the answer seems barely intriguing; the U.S. will withdraw when it suits them, when it is politically convenient for them, when they desire to change their land of adventures.

The subtle movement of U.S. policy indicates that considerable number of forces will withdraw from Iraq soon, sometime next year. If Senator John McCain is elected the next U.S. President, the troops will withdraw to demonstrate the success of the Republican Party’s ‘surge’ strategy. If Barack Obama happens to the next President, he will withdraw forces to demonstrate the credibility of his election promises. A movement towards that end has already been initiated and will be completely unrelated to the ‘situation on the ground’.

It was assumed (even by me) that Iraqi Prime Minister Maliki’s call for a withdrawal timetable was the assertion of Iraqi sovereignty. But it is difficult to expect that kind of public display of independence by a P.M. whose political existence has been craved out by the U.S. It is more appropriate to consider that the U.S. wanted to withdraw irrespective of the security situation in Iraq and hence the entire public drama was staged. Now the U.S. is equipped with a stronger argument of respecting the demands of the Iraqi P.M. who has demanded a timetable for withdrawal of foreign troops. And this will gradually be floated for popular consumption. The reconciliation between the Shia and Sunni political factions in Iraq could possibly have been facilitated by the U.S. behind the scenes to project the image of Iraq moving towards political stability. An image that suits the U.S. withdrawal strategy; a strategy which is gradually unfolding.

The differences over the Status of Force Agreement are another issue being published for justifying the troop withdrawal in the prospective U.S. strategy. The Iraqi Government and U.S. forces are expected to enter into a temporary agreement after the current agreement expires in December 2008. The U.S. is shunning any agreed long term commitments and can very diplomatically refer to the SOF disagreements as a reason for ad hoc involvement. Suddenly there has been a ‘surge’ in reports of the ability of Iraqi forces to conduct challenging operations and manage strategic strongholds. The Associated Press reported in early July that “Iraqi security forces arrested three locally prominent supporters of radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr as part of a crackdown on Shiite militias in the southern city of Amarah”. In the same news report, the U.S. military spokesman Lt. Col. Neil Harper is reported to have said that “The government of Iraq and Iraqi security forces are determined to pursue all criminals and provide a secure and stable environment for the people of Iraq,”. The US troop “surge” in Iraq is reported to have ended after the last of five additional combat brigades left the country in the last week of May 2008.

Admiral Michael Mullen, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said that on his recent trip to Iraq the conditions had improved more than he had expected. This is what a news report states:

“In recent months…two significant improvements: Violence is down and the Iraqi forces are rapidly growing in size and ability.” The handing over of Qadisiyah, the centre of fierce Shiite resistance, to Iraqi forces in mid July was expected to support the assessment of the U.S. military in the region. Most recently the operations in Diyala, though conducted jointly with the U.S. forces are being referred to as the most convincing evidence of the qualitative improvement of the Iraqi forces. There are also reports that the threat from the Al-Qaeda in Iraq was receding.

Thus there is every reason for the U.S. to soon reconsider its degree and kind of involvement in Iraq. Since the liberals across the world were demanding the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq, the move is expected to be greeted with cheers. But the concern is, has the security situation improved for the U.S. to withdraw? Is the U.S. leaving because the task is accomplished or because their preferences have changed? The U.S. withdrawal due to general disinterest coupled with political opportunism is a not a historical aberration, but follows a general pattern. Remember what happened after the defeat of Communist forces in Afghanistan during the 1980s?

Now consider the following:

Search on ‘violence in Iraq’ at McClatchy’s site . The site carries a section on “The daily round-up of violence in Iraq” and would be the simplest way to comprehend how much has changed in terms of Iraq’s security situation. Just two days ago (July 28, 2008) three female suicide bombers killed at least 32 people and wounded 102 when they blew themselves up among Shiites walking through the streets of Baghdad on a religious pilgrimage. The incidents of violence in Iraq are still phenomenal but for the U.S. the ‘situation on the ground is changing.’

The U.S. can project whatever ‘on the ground situation’ that suits its pre-determined policies. Occupation or withdrawal is a matter of political convenience and barely related to real strategic concerns. The invasion proved that and so will the withdrawal of forces from Iraq.

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Madhavi Bhasin is a Doctoral Researcher at the Jadavpur University, India. Her research areas include conflict resolution, South Asia and Middle East. Currently based in California and working on Indo-U.S. Missile Defense Cooperation and India’s Public Diplomacy Strategy.