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On Leaving Iraq

There was quite a contretemps on the left about a pro forma document submitted by the Barack Obama to the Congress about continuing the “national emergency” with respect to Iraq. If you go to the White House’s website and search for “national emergency,” you’ll find that we sure have a lot of national emergencies! It’s the language used to continue economic sanctions or official relations with other nations or the continued presence of troops. It does not mean “extending the war” but rather means that troops have to stay beyond May 22, a deadline from previous statutes. The document does not lock us in to anything further, and in fact the governing document here is the bilateral Status of Forces Agreement which calls for a withdrawal of combat forces by the end of the summer and all forces by the end of 2011. Nothing in that document changes that.

Now, The Guardian article about a possible delay in troop withdrawals is much more worrying, but it’s not based on any official statements or any statements at all, just supposition. As a counterweight, today we have a Washington Post article which asserts that the withdrawal will happen on schedule, and it, too, includes no official sources.

The U.S. military is on track to draw down to 50,000 troops in Iraq by the end of the summer, but it now faces the long-dreaded prospect that its exit could coincide with a power vacuum similar to the one that drove the country to civil war in 2006 […]

American commanders are watching the sluggish government formation process closely and warily. The risks are high, with U.S. and Iraqi military commanders expressing fears ranging from a possible resurgence of Shiite militias to the splintering of security forces along sectarian lines.

But the Obama administration has so far stuck to its timeline that calls for a drawdown to 50,000 troops — roughly half the current total — by Sept. 1, and the complete pullout of U.S. forces by the end of 2011. It has also disappointed some Iraqis who would like to see Washington play a more assertive role in brokering the political impasse.

I don’t buy the “hair on fire” argument or the “trust us we’re leaving” argument until I see actual results that lead to withdrawal. We have until September 1 to reduce from roughly 92,000 troops to 50,000. That’s not impossible but it needs to get going. The post-election chaos will persist REGARDLESS of our presence, anyway. And while the formation of a government has been slow, the alliance between rival Shiite groups points clearly to a resolution. The election recount requested by the ruling Maliki party ended, showing no fraud, and while that’s a preposterous conclusion, it was made to get the recount out of the way now that the Shiites have the numbers to bring together a coalition government. They’ll do so, Sunnis will be angry, there will be more fighting, and all of this is generally out of our control.

Just because there will be something called a “withdrawal” of combat troops by the end of the summer doesn’t mean we won’t have a substantial presence in Iraq come September, mind you. As Juan Cole points out, the 50,000 “non-combat” troops remaining will be combat troops re-branded as trainers. There will also be 4,500 special operations forces embedded with Iraqi counter-terrorism forces. And, from the article above:

U.S. officials said they hope to keep about 50,000 troops in Iraq until at least next spring and perhaps longer, saying they could conceivably compress the rest of the drawdown to the final four or five months of 2011. When troop levels drop to 50,000, the civilian contractor-to-soldier ratio is expected to increase as contractors take on more duties now performed by troops. The military expects it will have 75,000 contractors employed in Iraq by the end of the summer doing everything from base security to advanced weapons training.

The true test will be the end of 2011, because by that time, everyone has to go – the troops, the contractors, the “advisers.” Everyone. If that doesn’t happen, as required by the status of forces agreement, I’ll be the first to the barricades to express my outrage.

Until that time, there will be plenty of generals who don’t believe in ever ending wars who will leak the kind of material used by the Guardian to foster threats of delay. And there will be plenty of Iraqi leaders and commanders who will say they need the US to stick around, that otherwise they are helpless, continuing to use the crutch of military intervention. But our dalliance with imperial colonialism must come to an end in Iraq. And whether or not it happens should be judged by tangible evidence, not leaks or chatter.

UPDATE: More on this from Justin Elliott.

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David Dayen

David Dayen

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