Despite White House promises and a signed agreement to withdraw all U.S. troops from Iraq by December 31, 2011, Pentagon Officials, such as Adm. Mike Mullen, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, have encouraged the Iraqi government to consider allowing a contingency force of roughly 10,000 U.S. troops to remain and train Iraqi security forces.
The Iraqi government would have to make a formal request for U.S. troops to stay past the deadline and President Talabani and Prime Minister Al-Maliki have agreed to begin negotiations. But the verdict could tear the fragile government apart.
Both Sunni and Shi’a blocs in the parliament have spoken out against the troop extension and have warned that it could incite further insurgent violence. Muqtada Al-Sadr, an important Al-Maliki ally and former head of the Mahdi Army- turned politician, wants the U.S. out. On his website, in Arabic and English, he wrote to U.S. forces, “[G]o back to your families who are waiting for your arrival impatiently, so that you and we, as well, lead a peaceful life together.” However, if U.S. troops stay, Al-Sadr threatened to reunite his army, which caused much of the insurgent violence up to 2007, and target the “occupier.”
Pentagon officials have advocated keeping a contingency force in Iraq because they fear that Iraqi security forces will be unable to maintain stability after U.S. withdrawal and will be unable or unwilling to quell what the Pentagon believes is Iran’s growing influence on Iraqi politics and the insurgency.
By promoting a deadline extension in Iraq, Pentagon officials are ignoring the evidence that the U.S. presence is provoking an insurgency. U.S. Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction, Stuart Bowen Jr.,Bowen notes that attacks on U.S. troops by Shi’ite and Sunni militias and rocket attacks on the Green Zone in Baghdad have increased. Shi’ite militias state their goal as driving American forces out by the deadline. Keeping troops in Iraq past 2011 will create a backlash and has the potential to degrade rather than increase security.
Iranian influence in Iraq is also a serious concern for the U.S. because Iran benefits from a weak neighbor. Still, as the Center for American Progress’ Ben Armbruster writes, “if countering Iranian influence is now the standard for consideration of the U.S. military staying in Iraq past 2011, then American forces would probably stay in Iraq forever.” Iran has long involved itself in Iraqi affairs, “ U.S. bellicosity and blunders” in the region, as James Zogby, Director of the Arab American Institute explained, has given Iran new clout in Iraq. Continued U.S. presence will not stop Iran from trying to realize its national interests; only the Iraqis can minimize that influence.
Even if the Iraqi government makes the risky decision to retain a contingency force, let’s hope that the White House recognizes that it is a strategic error to do so and ends American military involvement in this war for good.