WaPo says that the Obama administration is still on track to draw down to 50,000 troops in Iraq by September 1, despite press speculation to the contrary in the past couple of days. There are now roughly 92,000 – 94,000 US troops in that country, down from 160,000 when President Obama was first elected. Another 5,000 are expected to come out in May, and the pace will pick up to 10,000 a month this summer.
What drove the speculation about a freeze of the withdrawal process? First, it seems clear that some generals have long opposed the Status of Forces Agreement and the Obama Administration’s withdrawal timetable, and my guess is that their offices occasionally float news of a halt in the process in order to to keep the pressure on for a slowdown. So far, Obama has just ignored them.
Second, it is possible that some commanders in Iraq are playing head games with the Sunni Arab guerrilla cells. You wouldn’t want them to grow so emboldened by the US drawdown that they make a concerted push to paralyze the country and overthrow the government or inflict substantial damage on it. Putting them on notice that if they go too far, they will actually interfere with one of their main goals, of getting the US out, is a way of giving them an incentive to go slow. This imperative would grow out of the bold and coordinated guerrilla attacks earlier this week that killed over 100 persons and hit targets everywhere from Mosul in the north to Basra in the south. Another bombing on Thursday killed 9 and wounded 32 at a Shiite coffeehouse in Sadr City, Shiite east Baghdad.
Third, the US left wing does not believe that Obama is committed to leaving Iraq. What, they say, of the huge permanent bases, of the need to safeguard US petroleum companies’ operations, etc.? So the left blogosphere magnifies the footdragging reports leaked by elements in the Pentagon.
But there are no such things as permanent bases. You build a base when you need a base, when you are in control or have a willing host. The US is a superpower, but generally speaking bases are bilateral agreements with the host country. When the Philippines asked the US navy to leave in 1989, it did so. The Iraqi parliament has asked the US to withdraw by the end of 2011 and Bush signed that treaty.
Obama needs the Iraq withdrawal for lots of reasons. I think he has a Christian moral vision, and he sees the Iraq war as having been immoral, and views the withdrawal as a sort of penance. He also frankly needs a successful withdrawal to campaign on in 2012. And he needs those troops now in Iraq (many of whom don’t have that much to do since independent patrols in the cities ended) for his Afghanistan escalation. The reduced expenditure in Iraq might also offset the expense of the Afghanistan war, a potentially controversial issue at a time of domestic economic bad times, as Tomdispatch points out.
The withdrawal isn’t entirely as advertised, of course, and won’t be as complete as the SOFA imagines. The 50,000 non-combat troops in Iraq as of September will actually be combat troops rebranded as trainers, and will include 4500 special operations forces actively tracking down and fighting guerrilla cells. But aside from the special operations guys, most of the US troops will not be doing active war fighting and will in fact mostly be training Iraqi troops, the quality and capabilities of which are definitely improving.
From September 2010 until December 2011, roughly 3,000 troops on average will come out each month (though that is just an average and the departures may be more bunched up at some points).
In the end, a very small force may remain, of trainers, special operations, and air force. Iraq’s air force planes and helicopters have been ordered but won’t arrive until 2013 and Iraqi pilots will need long and complicated training on them. The remaining US troops will be there, if at all, with the consent of the Iraqi government. They are unlikely to do any war fighting at all on their own. Close air support will likely be provided by the US to Iraqi infantry and armor in any pitched battles with militias from al-Udeid air force base in Qatar or from Incirlik in Turkey.
I very much doubt that any remaining troops, and their numbers will likely be tiny, would be detailed to provide security for Exxon Mobil in developing the oil fields of south Iraq. If the local Iraqis don’t want the oil majors operating there, they can easily sabotage them, and no number of US troops would likely be able to stop the sabotage. (The northern pipeline from Kirkuk to the Turkish coast of the Mediterranean has been routinely sabotaged all the time the US has been in Iraq and the US military has never seemed able to do much about it). Foreign militaries do not operate effectively at the micro level, for the most part. The Iraqi military would have to provide that security, and Iraqi authorities would be best placed to offer local clans incentives to allow the work to go ahead.
Iraq is in the US sphere of influence now, as the Philippines are, but in neither case does this modern form of great power politics require a big military presence. The Neocons’ dream of a division (25,000 – 30,000) US troops permanently in Iraq has been defeated by the Mahdi Army, the Baathists, and Sunni fundamentalists. But it was never a military necessity. In the case of the Neocons, they likely wanted that division as some sort of protection for Israel. It is an outmoded way of thinking.
Whether Iraq will remain in the US sphere of influence is not clear. It is alleged by journalists and retired officials that the US was behind the 1968 coup that brought the Baath Party to power. Yet by the late 1970s Baathist Iraq had developed much closer ties to the Soviet Union and to France than to the US. Iraq could easily drift back away from Washington over time. The new Iraqi elite will be pro-Hizbullah (this Lebanese Shiite party-militia was formed in some important part with the help of Iraqi expatriate members of the Da’wa or Islamic Mission Party in Beirut). Da’wa has since 2005 provided the prime minister for Iraq. In further Israeli-Hizbullah violence, Iraqi Shiites will side with Hizbullah
If US-Iran tensions rise, the new Iraqi political class that Bush did so much to install might well side with Iran, at least behind the scenes. It is already clear that the new Baghdad rejects Israel just as the old one did (and for Shiites ruling in the American shadow, doing so burnishes their Arab nationalist credentials).
Iraq is also clearly eager to develop strong ties with China, which will likely be a superpower by 2020. If the US is too overbearing, the Iraqis could migrate east in their political alliances.
Conservative pundit and media darling Bill Kristol thought that the time was ripe in the 21st century for a restoration of imperial governance on the British Empire model. He was wrong, in this as in everything else, because empire was ended by popular mobilization in the global South, and mobilization is actually easier now than ever before. Empire dispenses with spheres of influence, because direct rule makes the latter (and the hard diplomatic work they entail) unnecessary. But empire is gone, having foundered on the access of the world’s little people to communications technology, party organization, and firearms and munitions.
In the absence of empire, the US can only hope to remain influential in the world by being a good and trusted friend to others and being seen to abide by and champion international law. Future US-Iraqi relations will depend on what the Iraqi public thinks of the US, and will not grow out of the barrel of a gun or out of the imperatives of military bases.