Between 70,000 and 100,000 members of the Sadrist Shiite political bloc rallied in Baghdad on Thursday, demanding that the some 47,000 US troops still in Iraq leave altogether. Sadrist leader Muqtada al-Sadr says that if the troops remain, he will reactivate his Mahdi Army militia. It is a powerful threat. But in some ways, his political clout is more important than any such prospect of renewed paramilitary activity. It was Sadr’s support that allowed Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to form a government late last fall, and the government could easily fall if Sadr pulled out.
Al-Maliki said a couple of weeks ago that he would go to each of the major political blocs for advice on whether to request a new agreement with the US to leave some troops in Iraq. This statement was widely misinterpreted, I think, in the West. What al-Maliki was actually saying was that he refused unilaterally to extend the US troop presence. The main US hope for keeping American soldiers in Iraq is that al-Maliki would ask them to do so unilaterally, acting sort of presidentially. Instead, he has signalled that he will do no such thing, but will act as a prime minister, beholden to his coalition in parliament. I can’t imagine that any of the major blocs in parliament with the possible exception of the Kurds will advise al-Maliki to do a new SOFA that retains American soldiers in his country. And so it seems to me most likely that the US will have to leave, in part because of sheer political inertia in Iraq, as well as because the Sadrists have made it very clear that a US departure is a prerequisite for social peace. The Mahdi Army militia roiled the country in 2004 and could do so again. The US sees them as a proxy for Iran, but this view is largely incorrect. They are Shiite Iraqi nativists and don’t like foreigners in general, sort of an Iraqi Tea Party.
Now Pakistan is kicking out US special forces troops, showing its government’s displeasure with unilateral security operations on Pakistani soil. This move is in part a reaction against the Raymond Davis case, where a CIA operative shot two Pakistanis in broad daylight. But it also responds to the US incursion into Pakistan, when SEALS killed Usamah Bin Laden.
And as Iraqis and Pakistanis sought an end to US troop presence in their countries, the US House of Representatives surprised itself by almost passing a resolution urging a speed-up of the withdrawal from Afghanistan. the measure failed by only 12 votes, garnering 204 votes, 28 from Republicans. This is substantially more than a similar measure gained last summer in a Democratic-controlled House.
President Obama’s plan to begin drawing down US troops in July, 2011, had originally been controversial, opposed by generals like David Petraeus and by most Republicans. There was speculation that the Republican majority that came in last fall would attempt to stop the withdrawal. But the interminable Afghanistan War, the clear unreliability of President Hamid Karzai, and the killing of Usamah Bin Laden have all changed the political landscape so that momentum is building in the House for a quicker withdrawal than Obama initially proposed. Vice President Joe Biden has spoken about 2014 as an end date for the US military effort in Afghanistan, but it is unclear that the electorate will be patient for that long. Nearly 60 percent of Americans want out.
Younger Americans cannot remember when the US was not at war. Could we be seeing the glimmerings of a time, not long into the future, when no US soldiers will be fighting and dying anywhere on the globe? And, how long before a weary public finally demands that the bloated US war department budget finally be reduced, commensurate with the country’s increasingly straitened circumstances? (No other country beggars itself with military spending as the US does, and most do better economically and seem perfectly secure militarily).