The U.S. is on track to withdraw all 45,000 U.S. troops from Iraq by December 31, 2011 in compliance with an agreement signed by the Bush Administration in 2008. However, Senators John McCain (R-AZ), Joe Lieberman (I-CT) and Lindsey Graham (R-SC) voiced their opposition to full withdrawal in a Washington Post Op-Ed on September 18. The Senators submitted their case for retaining 10-25,000 troops in Iraq after 2012 to prevent Iraqi instability and help to combat Iran and Al-Qaeda, all without affecting the U.S. “budgetary situation.” Their argument is a bad idea, backed by faulty logic.
If U.S. combat troops leave Iraq, the Senators caution, the country could fall into civil war and America’s “hard won gains” would be lost. Though future instability in Iraq is a serious concern, the arrangement outlined in the Status of Forces agreement was that the U.S. would leave by 2011. The Iraqi government will have to permit U.S. military trainers and experts (not combat troops) to remain after the deadline, and even beginning negotiations on the subject was controversial in Iraq. Deputy Prime Minister Hussein Al-Shahristani has assured reporters that the Parliament will pass the extension, but both Shi’a and Sunni political blocs in the government have expressed opposition to an extension. One of the most vocal politicians is Muqtada Al-Sadr, a Shi’a cleric and member of the parliament, who has threatened to restore his Mahdi Army, a formidable insurgent militia, if the U.S. military remains even as trainers. Though the Senators seek some assurance that U.S. action over the past seven years was not in vain, continued military occupation could reignite quieted furies.
The Senators also state that if the U.S. withdraws, the ensuing chaos will be viewed worldwide as a U.S. defeat and will be a “boon” to Iran and Al-Qaeda. Conversely, if the U.S. does not withdraw by the agreed upon deadline, it would affirm Iran’s and Al-Qaeda’s message that the U.S. is an occupier in the Middle East. In fact, the U.S. dismantlement of Iraq– Iran’s greatest threat – has increased Iran’s influence in the region and in Iraq . In addition, there is no number of U.S. troops that can deter or remove Iranian influence from Iraq, as mentioned in a previous blog post.
Al-Qaeda will benefit from a U.S. withdrawal, the Senators warn, though the opposite is more likely. Al-Qaeda had no foothold in secular Iraq before the U.S. invasion, but it gained followers by backing insurgents and linking their struggle for control to Al-Qaeda’s rhetoric. Were American troops to stay, Al-Qaeda would continue to win support. Recent Iraqi history shows us that withdrawal will not be a “boon” to Iran or Al-Qaeda, but keeping combat troops could become one.
The option to hold troops in Iraq will undoubtedly increase the nearly $3 trillion total price tag of the Iraq war, though the Senators say otherwise. The distinction they make in their article is that keeping 3,000 troops (a number discussed by the Obama administration in light of Iraqi deadline negotiations) or 10,000-25,000 troops “will make no meaningful difference to our budgetary situation.” Maybe the Senators make this conclusion because the U.S. has yet to pay for the war, but in a follow up Letter to the Editor, Robert Naiman, policy director for Just Foreign Policy, calculated that leaving 10,000 troops will cost $80 billion from 2012 to 2021; 25,000 troops would be $200 billion. The Senators cannot argue logically or mathematically that continued U.S. troop presence would make “no meaningful difference” with numbers that large.
Senators McCain, Lieberman and Graham believe that only continued U.S. intervention will prevent bloodshed in Iraq, but an extension could equally contribute to Iraqi instability and even violence. The decision will ultimately come down to the Iraqi government, but on this side of the Atlantic, the White House should not be swayed the Senators’ flawed analysis. As former Iraqi Prime Minister and friend to America, Al-Allawi said in an interview, “We have serious security problems in [Iraq] and serious political problems. Keeping Americans in Iraq is … definitely not the solution to the problems of my country.”