Our guest blogger is Peter Juul, Research Associate at the Center for American Progress Action Fund.
Today, the New York Times reports that President Obama plans to withdraw only two combat brigades from Iraq prior to that country’s next national elections, scheduled for late this year. While all “combat forces” would be withdrawn by August 2010, as many as 50,000 “advisors” would remain to train Iraqi forces and conduct counterterrorism missions. For some combat units, this shift to advisor role would amount to nothing more than a name change. According to the Status of Forces Agreement with Iraq, this “transition force” would have to leave Iraq by the end of 2011.
President Obama’s emerging plan for U.S. withdrawal fits in between his 16-month campaign pledge and the SOFA. Still, the president must be prepared to conduct a quicker withdrawal, whatever the situation on the ground in Iraq. Why? In order to pass the SOFA through the Iraqi parliament, a provision for a popular referendum by July 2009 was included alongside the agreement. If the referendum rejects the SOFA, the United States will have one year to completely withdraw from Iraq. But Obama’s plan doesn’t make a sufficient “down payment” on withdrawal prior to the referendum in order to convince skeptical Iraqis that the United States really does plan to leave Iraq on the timetable specified in the SOFA. So it’s not outside the realm of possibility that the United States could be forced to make a complete withdrawal from Iraq by July 2010.
Nevertheless, the Iraq debate in Washington continues to ignore the political realities in Iraq. As fellow Iraq blogger Eric Martin noted, many observers – including Tom Ricks – continue to make this same fundamental error. Even the commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, General Raymond Odierno, has intimated the possibility of U.S. troops in Iraq beyond the SOFA withdrawal deadline while officially hewing to the SOFA. And today, Michael O’Hanlon and Kenneth Pollack, the Keystone Cops of Iraq policy, argue that the Obama administration should be willing to slow down withdrawals and in effect ignore the SOFA and the referendum. So once again the Beltway debate is being waged in favor of ignoring Iraqi realities in order to keep the U.S. military in Iraq while even John McCain admits the situation in Afghanistan keeps getting worse.
So what should Obama do? First and foremost, he should be prepared to rapidly withdraw U.S. forces from Iraq by July 2010 if the SOFA referendum fails. If it passes, Obama should stick to his apparent plan to reduce U.S. troops to 50,000 or less by August 2010 and complete withdrawal (per the SOFA) by the end of 2011. The administration should resist pressure from all quarters to essentially ignore the SOFA or renegotiate it, which may serve to destabilize rather than reinforce the positive security trends of the last couple years. Even the emergent plan may be too slow given the demands for troops that may come from the Afghanistan strategy review.
Far from considering slowing the withdrawal of troops from Iraq, as O’Hanlon and Pollack and other advocates of an extended occupation desire, President Obama needs to consider an even faster pace of withdrawal from Iraq. Given Iraqi political realities and the strategic demands placed on U.S. forces by the Afghanistan war, Obama will likely be forced to expedite the removal of American troops from Iraq. Doing so within the context of an Iraqi rejection of the SOFA would more likely reinforce acceptance of Iraq’s political system as one that can work to solve Iraqis’ most pressing political problems, while ignoring the SOFA would only create problems and might lead Iraqis to conclude that violence is the only way they can truly resolve political problems.