Iraq To U.S. Troops: Thanks, But No Thanks

Our guest blogger is Micah Zenko, a Fellow in the Center for Preventive Action at the Council on Foreign Relations.

iraq-peekabooOn June 30th, the first phase of America’s withdrawal from Iraq began as U.S. combat forces left “all Iraqi cities, villages, and localities,” as required by the Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) signed in November 2008 by the government of Prime Minster Nouri al-Maliki and the George W. Bush administration.

As reported Saturday and yesterday in the Washington Post, Iraq’s interpretation of the SOFA has placed a number of onerous operational constraints on U.S. troops, including an order to “stop all joint patrols in Baghdad.” An Iraqi Defense Ministry official confirmed the constraints to the BBC yesterday, noting that no joint patrols have been conducted in any cities since June 13th. One Iraqi Major even made the incredible claim that any joint U.S.-Iraqi missions had to be personally approved by Prime Minister al-Maliki.

On the one hand, U.S. commanders should welcome the initiative of their Iraqi counterparts in taking ownership over the security and well-being of their citizens. On the other hand, these operational constraints effectively eliminate the primary military mission of the 130,000 U.S. troops in Iraq — training and advising Iraqi security forces to provide stability and counter the worsening insurgent threats.

Furthermore, additional constraints have restricted the ability of U.S. soldiers from collecting evidence or detaining insurgents who pose an imminent threat, as is allowed in Article IV of the SOFA.

If the U.S. military is forced to train Iraqi soldiers in a manner inconsistent with its standard doctrine for host nation support, or protect itself from insurgent attacks in a defensive and reactive posture that places American soldiers at unnecessary risk, the Obama administration should accelerate the timetable that requires all American forces to leave the country no later than December 31, 2011.

As a consequence of the al-Maliki government’s interpretation of the SOFA, withdrawing from Iraq faster than was expected nine months ago would benefit U.S. and Iraqi interests for the following reasons.

First, as the United States gradually pulls out, and the Iraqi security forces become more proficient and emboldened in securing their own people, the Obama administration will have fewer points of leverage to secure permission from Baghdad for the freedom-of-movement required of U.S. forces to—at the very minimum—protect themselves.

Second, by ending the large-scale American military presence in Iraq, it would further establish the country as a sovereign government. According to an ABC News survey, 81 percent of Iraqis support the withdrawal of U.S. forces by the 2011 deadline, or sooner (46 percent, a plurality). As President Bush asked and answered in a long-forgotten moment of clarity in 2004: “Who wants to be occupied? Nobody wants to be occupied.”

Third, it would improve President Obama’s foreign policy credibility among Americans, two-thirds of whom remain opposed to the war, and 69 percent of whom do not believe that U.S. forces will leave Iraq by the end of 2011.

Fourth, it would allow over-used U.S. soldiers and equipment to rest, reset, and retrain, for counterinsurgency operations in Afghanistan, or (ideally) for no combat operations at all for the foreseeable future.

The SOFA contains a provision that Iraq is hinting at with its strict interpretation of the treaty: “The United States recognizes the sovereign right of the Government of Iraq to request the departure of the United States Forces from Iraq at any time. The Government of Iraq recognizes the sovereign right of the United States to withdraw the United States Forces from Iraq at any time.”

The United States should exercise its sovereign right on an accelerated timetable to, once and for all, leave a sovereign Iraq, which increasingly does not want its presence.