US Troop Withdrawal in Iraq on Track

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.

30 Responses

  1. Bless your optimistic hopeful heart, Dr. Cole. I hope you are right, and I am wrong, that I have been blinded by my unhealthy mistrust in the President and his administration.

  2. Well it is almost 16 months since Obama took office, and Obama ran on the campaign promise that he’d get the troops out in 16 months. Just one of the long list of promises broken by Obama. This was his signature issue (the one which differentiated himself from the other Democratic nominees) on a deal which was done once Bush signed the SOFA.

    50,000 troops is not a residual force.

    The additional troops that we are maintaining (compared to the promise of getting us out in 16 months) is costing us Billions of dollars – money that we cannot afford.

    It is ironic that the person who will really get us out of Iraq is not Obama but rather Muqtada al-Sadr, who has enough MPs to be an influential deal maker now.

    • Obama revised his 16 month pledge in light of the SOFA negotiated by the Iraqi parliament. 50,000 troops not independently patrolling major cities and there for 16 months are actually pretty residual.

      • There is nothing in the SOFA which prevents Obama from withdrawing. Furthermore there also is a clause which gives both sides the ability to give each other a one year notice and withdraw within a year. Also, there was an Iraqi referndum which was supposed to be held in March 2009 and unless the Iraqi people approved SOFA, US troops were supposed to have left by July 2010. We both know how why this referndum was never held as the Iraqi people have been always opposed to the continued presence of US troops. 50,000 troops are a lot of troops, and while they may not be patrolling the streets, it costs us a ton of money to keep them there – money that we simply cannot afford in our current situation. Always when it comes times to withdraw there are excuses about how Iraq will blow up. Obama is not going to withdraw the 50,000 troops in another 16 months either – there will be some excuse about how “fragile” the situation is there. The failure of the left to hold Obama to his promise is simply inexcusable.

      • .
        Obama was elected 4 Nov 2008. A Bush Administration official signed the “SOFA” 19 Nov 2008. The details of the SOFA were in flux until it was signed.
        Based on that sequence, I think Obama revised his 16-month pledge after he was elected. So, from here, it looks like he ran on that promise, he won on that promise, and then he repudiated that promise. Others may see it differently.

        .

        50,000 soldiers is another way of saying an Army Corps, which is traditionally 3 divisions plus the C2 and logistics to permit them to operate independently. With most Brigades being converted to the Brigade Combat Team model, take that with a grain of black powder.
        It took far fewer than 50,000 soldiers to conduct the initial invasion of Iraq in 2003 along Route Tampa. 50,000 US soldiers are enough to invade and conquer any European nation except Russia, any South American nation but Brazil, almost any African nation*, or any Asian nation but China, India, Pakistan, or Indonesia. That’s not enough manpower to occupy a typical nation, admittedly, but it is more military power than all but a dozen or so other nations can muster.
        I understand why a person might want to make excuses for President Obama, thinking that, any day now, he’s going to turn into the person he campaigned as. I know, because although I did NOT want him to win, now that he did, I would much prefer the Candidate to the Reality.

        * – There aren’t enough soldiers in the world to conquer Congo. While Iraq and Afghanistan are figurative quagmires, Congo is the real deal.
        .

  3. […] overwhelming number of Middle East commentators are subject to.  Therefore, when he says that the US will be pulling out most of its troops from Iraq, I believe […]

  4. The notion of modelling the US role in the 21st century on the British Empire was not limited to Bill Kristol. This position was advocated even by such mainstream figures as Richard Haass, who is now president of the Council on Foreign Relations. Here is Haass in a speech entitled ‘Imperial America’ given on Nov. 11, 2000, shortly before his appointment to director of policy planning at the State Dept.:

    “To advocate an imperial foreign policy is to call for a foreign policy that attempts to organize the world along certain principles affecting relations between states and conditions within them. The U.S. role would resemble 19th century Great Britain … Coercion and the use of force would normally be a last resort; what was written by John Gallagher and Ronald Robinson about Britain a century and a half ago, that “The British policy followed the principle of extending control informally if possible and formally if necessary,” could be applied to the American role at the start of the new century.”

  5. Whether Iraq will remain in the US sphere of influence is not clear.

    They’ll have to be if they want to keep access to supplies and parts for the equipment they’re buying from us, like the planes mentioned for 2013. Otherwise, the US won’t trust them not to sell the technology and equipment illicitly to Iran.

    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.

    That’s certainly a possibility, although the Chinese tend to be more concerned with commercial ties than strategic defense ones. They’ll get investment in the oil fields, and maybe arms, but not security coverage.

    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.

    It was one of the factors, but just as important (if not more important) was pressure from the United States on Great Britain and France to back off from most of their empires, plus the general inability on the part of those states to really handle the perpetual money drain that their empires were, after said states were devastated in World War 2.

    Of course, that didn’t stop the two biggest powers of the Cold War from doing the imperialism thing indirectly, via client states, funding, and even direct military support (the Soviet Union in Eastern Europe).

    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.

    The first part is correct, although I’d quibble on the definition of what a “good” friend entails. Not so much the second part.

  6. First of all we still have U. S. special forces -SO PAC- running about in the Philippines, so what’s the difference, we have not left that country. Also, what about Okinawa in Japan? They have made it perfectly clear the bases must go? So what about their voices, or are we going to hide behind a victors treaty forced on a vanquished nation? Finally, I hope your last paragraph is correct, it seems to me the only way to move forward in a sane and productive manner.

    • SO PAC was put back in in joint consultations and could be asked to leave at any time. My point remains. Bases are mostly the result of bilateral agreements and typically a sign that the host government is afraid of a third party (North Korea, e.g., or the old Soviet Union). The US tries to strong-arm hosts sometimes, and a handful of bases are just imperial imposition, but there are a lot of bases and most often they are the result of the host national elite wanting them for some reason. Some services, such as the Marines, are nowadays actively hostile to maintaining foreign bases; they think you can just ship out from the States in a crisis and preposition some materiel in the region. I bring this up because it is a piece of geopolitics that many left of center Americans appear not to understand and because a wrong premise has warped their understanding of the Iraq withdrawal.

      • Yeah, but those are the Marines – seizing coastal territory for amphibious landings is a major part (and one of the original reasons for) of their mission and existence.

        Ask the Army, which is much more dependent on bases for supply and logistics efforts, and you’d probably get a very different answer. Same with the Air Force.

  7. “I think he (Obama) has a Christian moral vision, and he sees the Iraq war as having been immoral, and views the withdrawal as a sort of penance.” Professor? Are you sure? I find the Obama to be amoral. The Obama seems given to expedience and getting over. The Obama is disingenuous for certain. About Guantanamo, about holding the Bushco war criminals to account, about nuclear Israel, the apartheid wrought on Palestinians, on his good buddies on Wall Street. Yeah the Obama can pontificate like a consummate pro. Delivering up “change” well, he doesn’t seem to have managed any of that yet.

  8. Yes, we left the Philippines, but ask the Japanese how easy it is to get the US to leave, no matter how strongly the locals want the bases to be gone…

    • “Yes, we left the Philippines, but ask the Japanese how easy it is to get the US to leave, no matter how strongly the locals want the bases to be gone…Helen Marshall says:”

      Yes, we left the Philippines but under what circumstances? When west talks about their leaving from many places they simply say we left such & such place. West leaves out many words like left “Unceremoniously.”

      The conditions in Philippines were uncontrollable by either their own military power or by the help of US forces. In the end US just not evacuated the base but have to airlift out Dictator Marcos also, who was ruling for the last 30 years? If US would have not left, I was afraid things may have turned as ugly as what happened in Iran few years ago. US did not want to lose Iran on one side and Philippine on the other side of the Globe.

      It always makes me laugh when I read “British left India.” Churchill has said having India makes British 1st rate empire & loss of India makes British power third rate. Do you thing British left India to become 3rd rate power?

      It was the circumstances that compelled British to leave incongruously. In similar circumstances US will leave Okinawa.

  9. “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.” – Wouldn’t this statement be incorrect? If I recall correctly, the British lost most of its colonies not because of popular mobilization, but because of a lack of will and money to support its colonial effort. Most of the time when British colonies gained independence there was a token uprising, but it was mainly because the British didn’t have a stomach for colonialism that colonialism ended.

    • You’d be wrong. Popular mobilization in places like India raised the cost of empire, making it unpopular. Algeria is another example. The idea that European elites suddenly lacked the “will” to stay in lucrative colonies they had had for centuries and just voluntarily gave up is bizarre.

      • Popular mobilization in places like India raised the cost of empire, making it unpopular.

        That had more to do with the post-World War 2 economic realities than the issue of cost itself, since none of the late 19th century empires actually gave out more money that they swallowed up in costs, and before World War 2 they’d put down some serious and bloody revolts (the 1920s revolt in Iraq, and an earlier revolt in India).

        I agree that the idea that they’d lost the will to keep the empires is weak – both the UK and France, for example, made major efforts to hang on to their empires after World War 2. What really got them to stop, other than financial problems, was that both were in the circle of influence of the US, and the US (and particularly the Eisenhower Administration) were pushing them to give up their empires. *

        * It wasn’t out of any real sympathy for local nationalist movements in the empires – the US government was worried that trying to hang on to their empires would bankrupt its western European allies, leaving them more vulnerable to communist infiltration.

        • You are just underestimating the changes in e.g. Indian society that made continued British imperial rule impossible. Print revolution, increased literacy and urbanization, networking through political parties and civil society organizations, rise of Indian industrialist class that felt it could do better if it ran things itself instead of leaving that to London. I have spent my life studying these things, and keep running up against people focused on the imperial metropole who just cannot see the realities on the ground. Every time a British officer gave an order, there was x percent likelihood it would be obeyed by Indian compradors. That percentage approached zero by 1947.

  10. 1. Gee, I rather thought leaving 50,000 troops (a huge presence) in there for another year was footdragging.

    “Future US-Iraqi relations will depend on what the Iraqi public thinks of the US”
    I’d be tempted to add, what this public is willing to forgive.

  11. I was very pleased by your post, and I entirely agree.

    However, the elements of the military that you cite, are not the only ones to want the US to stay. The Kurds too, as I’ve said before on this line.

    I was very struck, back in January, at a meeting at UNESCO on Iraqi heritage, by the way that the Kurdish minister insisted on being treated as an equal of the Iraqi minister, or rather as a superior, as he gave his final speech after the Iraqi.

    It is a basic principle of Iraqi-Kurdish relations that for things to go well in Erbil, they have to go badly in Baghdad. If they go well in Baghdad, Erbil is in danger. The Kurds need US protection. If they don’t have it, they fear a renewal of Saddam’s policies.

    There have been contacts between the Kurds and Odierno, who is sympathetic to them. It is not as simple as one might think.

    There are others who are interested in bombing Baghdad back into instability, though I have difficulty in identifying them, the Sunni rebellion being pretty much dead. Rare foreign al-Qa’ida, certainly a possibility; you don’t need many to place a bomb.

    Some of the last year’s bombs were placed by the Kurds, I’m certain, but the present situation is less clear. I’m sorry that Maliki has lost the clarity of his position. At one time, it was clearly nationalist. One knew where one was going. Now I’m less certain, and I’m sure the extremists take the same view, and the bombs come from all quarters.

  12. “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.”

    You’ll correct me if I’m wrong but it’s my understanding that the elections which were forced on the U.S. in ’05 were the result of a non-violent movement organized to a large degree by Ayatollah al-Sistani. This is not to say armed militias didn’t play a roll in defeating U.S. goals in Iraq but the Bush Administration was unable to build up a subservient client government to a large extent because the Iraqi people would not allow democracy to be suppressed.

    As far as Obama and the military bases and oil – the pro-war U.S. forces were defeated with the SOFA. There seems little Obama can do although he has been investing in building up the military bases perhaps in the hopes that the U.S. would succeed in influencing the elections just past. I sincerely doubt Obama thinks the war is immoral since he campaigned for Lieberman back then and voted for war funding as soon as he got into the senate. His record isn’t much different than Sec. Clinton’s.

  13. “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” according to professor Juan Cole.

    Professor Cole, you are absolutely correct that USA was never an empire like British, Spanish or French those plundered the resources of their colonies. British looted India so much & liked the word loot to the extent that they even took the word “Loot” with them and added it in the English vocabulary.

    Though USA is not an empire as others but USA according to Stephen Kinzer has supported every dictator around the globe in the last 50 years. USA has poked its nose in so many places that USA Flag has been burned so often so many places than anyone else. Though we advocate and beat drums of democracy, USA & our poodle Britain has overthrown democratically elected governments like in Iran, Chile & Guatemala to name a few. USA has gone to war to restore kingdoms as in the case of Kuwait.

    Again according to Stephen Kinzer, Middle East map & politics would have been looked much different if Dr. Mussaddiq’s democratically elected government would have not over thrown by CIA agent Kermit Roosevelt & British intelligent.

    I do not think US will get out of Iraq after spending so much on the military bases and building the largest fortified Castle in the form of an Embassy that cost over a BILLION Dollars. Most likely Iraqis will be kept straight with the barrel of a gun for a long time to come.

    • Professor Cole, you are absolutely correct that USA was never an empire like British, Spanish or French those plundered the resources of their colonies. British looted India so much & liked the word loot to the extent that they even took the word “Loot” with them and added it in the English vocabulary.

      I’d argue that. The US more or less ruled the Phillipines and Puerto Rico directly as a colonial power, and dominated Cuba and several other islands in the Caribbean that it took as spoils from the Spanish-American War imperial-style.

      As for the British, they both added to and detracted from India. Some of the things they did, like ending the wife-burning thing, building a major railroad system, and the civil bureaucracy, were highly beneficial after British Imperial rule ended.

      Though we advocate and beat drums of democracy, USA & our poodle Britain has overthrown democratically elected governments like in Iran, Chile & Guatemala to name a few.

      It’s annoying, isn’t it? The British used the whole “white man’s burden” type of justification before the US, and the US uses the “promoting democracy” type. I’ve never liked either – I’d much prefer that we simply say what we’re up to, and state the obvious in public: that our national interest is at the bottom line of our diplomacy and foreign policy.

      Think of how the Chinese make commercial and arms deals with several of the African countries – there’s none of that annoying, cloying propaganda.

      As for Iran, the US-British effort was actually a failure – the Shah fled the country. * It was action by the Shah’s supporters shortly thereafter that got him back in power (and the fact that Mossadegh had become increasingly authoritarian and unpopular), although the US recognized the regime after the Shah took his throne.

      * It’s a fairly common misconception, mostly because Kermit Roosevelt’s account of the whole thing has more or less become the “official” version of it, and he was a tireless, massive self-promoter.

      Again according to Stephen Kinzer, Middle East map & politics would have been looked much different if Dr. Mussaddiq’s democratically elected government would have not over thrown by CIA agent Kermit Roosevelt & British intelligent.

      I think you are vastly under-estimating the capabilities of the pro-monarchist forces in Iran at the time when the Shah was restored, seeing as how they were the ones that restored him to power after the US-British coup fell on its face.

      As for Mossadegh, he was a dead man regardless of the coup. If the monarchists hadn’t toppled him, either the Tudeh (Communists) or the religious faction in Iran would have done so, seeing as how he’d become increasingly unpopular and weak near the end of his regime.

  14. This would be an almost “best case” scenario from what I thought would happen after the neocons asinine invasion of Iraq.

    Also, a “worst case” scenario for the neocons.

    That makes me very happy.

  15. The SOFA doesn’t “imagine;” it requires. Obama’s about as Christian as the Popes who drummed up the Crusades. Can you provide one logical and legal reason why the USA needs to have troops stationed outside its borders, or a Navy and Air Force as large as they are?

  16. Will Obama continue to increase the drone attacks in Pakistan? Whether it’s Iraq or Pakistan dead civilians is all the same.

  17. Mr. Obama runs the U.S. partly according to his Christian ethics. Mr. Bush ran the U.S. partly according to his Christian ethics. I see nothing objectionable about this per se, but I imagine a Rawlsian liberal might disagree?

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