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Maliki Cements Acceptance of Post-Withdrawal Military Trainers in Iraq

Joe Biden wrapped up his two-day trip to Iraq today, promoting a new phase in US-Iraqi relations. But that phase, contrary to popular myth, will include US military troops on the ground throughout the country:

Iraq’s prime minister indicated on Wednesday that he was open to the eventual return of American troops as trainers, underscoring that the United States is likely to be involved in this country’s security even after the last soldiers depart in the coming weeks.

“No doubt, the U.S. forces have a role in providing training of Iraqi forces,” said Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki after meeting Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr., who is here to mark the withdrawal and to inaugurate a new phase in ties between the United States and Iraq.

Mr. Biden reaffirmed that the two countries would maintain a “robust security relationship,” adding that it was up to the Iraqis to decide “what you think that relationship should be.” He and Mr. Maliki agreed to set up a committee to plan security cooperation.

By casting the residual troops as “trainers,” Maliki no doubt wants to get around any Parliamentary sanction for military forces, which helped derail the effort the first time around. Perhaps it’s a way around the restriction on US troops in Iraq per the status of forces agreement as well.

We’re probably talking in the hundreds here, and if their training mission is carefully circumscribed, maybe it’s not the biggest issue in the hierarchy of foreign policy and national security. But it is instructive on the casual lies that the government uses to describe its actions. Remember that the withdrawal from Iraq has been cast as a great victory by the Administration and its supporters. It’s supposed to be a triumph, to extricate us from an unwinnable military conflict where our troops were not ultimately the answer to Iraq’s problems. But read the fine print. There will be some residual force training Iraqis, ready in case future threats to national security or terrorist actions necessitate a return to the battlefield. This is not a clean break. In short, it’s not what the American public was promised, in boasts by the Administration.

This could also be Maliki freelancing. Iraqi government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh insisted that the talks included nothing about security arrangements or the military. It’s possible that the talk by Maliki and Biden was intended for a domestic audience in the US.

But it looks more like the withdrawal will take place to great fanfare, everyone will wait until attentions are turned elsewhere, and then US military troops will return inside Iraq. Because the lesson of history over the last century is that the US military doesn’t truly leave anywhere.

UPDATE: Sadrists protested the Biden visit, incidentally.

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David Dayen

David Dayen