Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki made news this week with his interview in the Wall Street Journal, in the course of which he insisted that all US troops would be out of Iraq by January 1, 2012:
‘ WSJ: Some American officials have spoken about contingency plans being drawn now in Washington for the possibility that some American troops will stay after 2011. Do you know about these contingency plans, and do you need troops?
Mr. Maliki: I do not care about what’s being said. I care about what’s on paper and what has been agreed to. The withdrawal of forces agreement [Status of Forces Agreement or SOFA] expires on Dec. 31, 2011. The last American soldier will leave Iraq.
Secondly this agreement is sealed and at the time we designated it as sealed and not subject to extension, except if the new government with Parliament’s approval wanted to reach a new agreement with America, or another country, that’s another matter. This agreement is not subject to extension, not subject to alteration, it is sealed, it expires on Dec. 31 . ‘
Al-Maliki in specifying parliament as the body that would have to make any new agreement for US troops to come back to Iraq after that date was implicitly throwing cold water on the hopes of American officials in Washington that they might be able to just have the prime minister extend the warrant for foreign troops to remain in the country.
Nor is there any reason to think that is what al-Maliki would want. A US official in Basra wrote last January that “According to XXXXXXXXXX, the GOI [government of Iraq] is anxious to ‘get rid of all the white faces carrying guns’ in their streets…”
There are not 163 votes in parliament for an extension of the US troop presence, and any move in that direction would likely cause al-Maliki’s government to fall. Muqtada al-Sadr’s followers have 40 seats in parliament and are the leading party in the National Iraqi Alliance, the Shiite fundamentalist parties, who have a total of 70 seats. They would pull out of al-Maliki’s government and likely return to militia activity were he to betray their expectations in that way. Al-Maliki’s own State of Law coalition, including his Islamic Mission Party (Da`wa) is certainly not going to plump for US troops to remain. It has 89 seats. Those two Shiite religious blocs have 159 seats between them. And, among the Sunni Arabs of the Iraqiya, there would certainly be at least 4 who opposed retaining US troops. Voila, 163. No parliamentary approval.
There is substantial doubt and deep-seated suspicion among many Americans that the US is truly getting out. The suspicion is justified, and there are certainly powerful political and military interests in Washington that do not want to leave.
But the likelihood is that the US military mission in Iraq really is rapidly winding down. Sometimes I hear people saying that the US will never abandon its hardened military bases, which are ‘permanent’ or ‘enduring.’ But there are no such things as permanent military bases. I grew up on army bases abroad, and not one of them still exists. In fact, I was among the military dependents forced out of France by DeGaulle in 1965-1966 when he took that country out of the military part of NATO and closed US bases. Kagnew Station in Asmara, Eritrea, where I spent some of my teenaged years, is a dim memory. Bases are usually the result of bilateral agreements, which can be abrogated (viz.: the Philippines).
In fact, the US military has been busily handing over former American or joint American-Iraqi bases to the new Iraqi military, and by August had closed 411 bases. At the web site of the US military in Iraq, where the wind-down is obvious. Just last month, the US announced the transfer of the Al Tib base on the Iranian border to the Iraqis. A base on the Iranian border was an important listening post for observing Iran and it was a significant site for interdicting smuggled weapons from Iran, and some in the US military would certainly have wanted to retain it as long as possible. But they had to turn it over to Iraqi commandos.
The signs of rapid and significant US military draw-down are everywhere. The NYT reported in early December that the number of Iraqis employed by the US military has fallen from 44,000 to only 10,500 since January, 2009. Over the past summer, of 2010, the number of contractors and grantees who are paid directly by the US government in Iraq fell by nearly a fourth.
I am beginning suspect that there really will be no US bases in Iraq a year from now. Some provision will likely be made for American trainers who will need to train Iraqi pilots and other personnel in the use of sophisticated military equipment. But we’re just not talking about a large number of people, perhaps only a few hundred, and they won’t go on military missions. The US Air Force will willy-nilly be Iraq’s air force for some years (Iraq has ordered US fighter jets and helicopter gunships, which will arrive in 2013, and it will take Iraqi pilots years to get up to speed on them). But close air support missions could be run from al-Udeid base in Qatar.
Others worry that the US will exercise political influence over Iraq for years to come. That likely influence is undeniable, but influence is not the same as domination. Iraq will seek a balance between US and Iranian demands, as it has been doing in recent years. Moreover, the wikileaks cables have revealed the remarkable degree to which the US government has been highly influential in, e.g. Australian politics, and if anything the US will have less leverage in Iraq than it does in Australia. No one is arguing that the peculiar, behind-the-scenes sort of American empire is ending with the withdrawal from Iraq. What is ending is George W. Bush’s departure into expensive and anachronistic games of direct imperial domination.