By Lt. General Robert Gard (USA, Ret.)
Maintaining U.S. troops in a hostile environment when an overwhelming majority of the population is adamantly opposed to their presence is not only foolhardy but also counter-productive, especially when there is an agreement with the host nation government to withdraw them by a date certain.
On 17 November 2008, the governments of the United States and Iraq signed two landmark documents: a “Strategic Framework for a Relationship of Friendship and Cooperation ….” and an “Agreement … on the Withdrawal of United States Forces from Iraq and the Organization of Their Activities during Their Temporary Presence in Iraq [Status of Forces].” Both entered into force on 1 January 2009, very close to the conclusion of the presidency of George W. Bush.
The Framework agreement stipulates that the United States shall not “seek or request permanent bases or a permanent military presence in Iraq,” and the Status of Forces agreement specifies that “All the United States Forces shall withdraw from all Iraqi territory no later than December 31, 2011.” While the Bush administration clearly preferred an agreement that did not specify a specific date for the withdrawal of U.S. troops, the Iraqi government insisted on it as a key provision of the formal Status of Forces agreement.
An ABC/USA Today poll, released in March 2007, revealed that 98 % of Iraqi Sunnis and 83% of Shiites opposed the presence of U.S. troops. In May 2007, the majority of the Iraqi Parliament signed a petition urging a phased withdrawal of U.S. forces. President Bush commented: “It’s their government’s choice. If they were to say leave, we would leave.”
Bilateral negotiations on the two agreements began in March 2008. Two Iraqi parliamentarians testified on 4 June that U.S. presence in Iraq is highly unpopular with the Iraqi people and the majority of the Iraqi Parliament would strongly reject any agreement not linked to a clear timetable for withdrawal of U.S. forces. On 7 July, Prime Minister al Maliki publicly urged a timetable for withdrawal; and the next day, the Iraqi government’s National Security Advisor, al Rubaie, stated that the Iraqi government is “impatiently waiting for the complete withdrawal of U.S. troops. Occupation is like a magnet for terrorism. The invasion placed U.S. forces close to Syria and Iran, causing negative reactions with Iraq paying the price.” President Bush surprisingly responded immediately that the Maliki and Rubaie positions did not reflect a fundamental disagreement with his administration.
Also in July of 2008, Maliki declared that the terrorists were defeated; and Major General Mark Hartling, the American commander of the northern sector of Iraq, said: “I think we’re at the irreversible point.” On 25 July, U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker claimed that the insurgency is “not even much of a challenge any more” to the future of Iraq. “Very clearly,” he said, “the insurgency is in no position to overthrow the government or, really, even to challenge it. It’s almost in no position to try to confront it.” Although violence has persisted, it is at a much lower level than in the previous years. By the end of 2008, Iraqi security forces exceeded 600,000, surely enough to prevent any insurgent group from taking over the government.
It therefore is not surprising that the Status of Forces agreement also directed the earlier withdrawal of U.S. combat forces from Iraqi “cities, villages and localities” by 30 June 2009. The agreement acknowledged the right of U.S. troops to legitimate self defense, but it specified that all military operations by U.S. troops would be conducted only with the agreement of the Iraqi government and in full coordination with Iraqi authorities. In March 2009, Prime Minister Maliki stated that Iraq is ready “right now” to take over the combat mission from American forces. On 16 March 2009, the results of an extensive BBC poll taken in all provinces of Iraq were released. Public opinion was strongly negative on the lack of availability of electricity, clean water and medical care; and attitudes toward foreign troops in Iraq continued to be highly unfavorable: 90% of Sunnis and 67% of Shiites rated as “very or quite bad” how well coalition troops have carried out their responsibilities.
Candidate Barak Obama campaigned for the presidency on a policy of ending U.S. combat operations in Iraq and withdrawing all combat forces over a 16 month period following his inauguration. He stated the intent to retain support troops to provide logistical assistance and continued training for Iraqi security forces, along with a military capability to hunt down al Qaeda in Iraq and protect the U.S. embassy and other American personnel and assets; these troops would be phased out prior to the end of 2011, when all U.S. military units are required to depart.
At their peak, U.S. forces numbered about 170,000 during the 2007/8 surge. By summer 2008, the number was reduced to about 140,000, slightly more than before the surge, and continued close to that level for the remainder of the Bush presidency. As of July 2011, about 46,000 U.S. troops remain in Iraq, encamped in isolated cantonment facilities and subject to attacks that have increased their casualty rate; June 2011 was the deadliest month for Americans in Iraq in three years.
Even if the U.S. fulfills its obligation to withdraw its military units from Iraq, there still would be hundreds of American military personnel there after 2011, with Marine guards and defense attaché personnel at the U.S. embassy, and a military assistance advisory team overseeing American military sales to Iraq and the additional training of Iraqi security forces. Moreover, there will be sizeable security forces hired by the U.S. Department of State.
Despite all these developments, some officials of the U.S. government have been suggesting that 10 to15,000 American combat forces should remain in Iraq. Last May, then Secretary of Defense Gates expressed the hope that the Iraqi government would request the U.S. to keep troops in their country after 2011, as an exception to the Status of Forces agreement. Other officials have stated that the U.S. would consider any such request, if tendered, by the Iraqi government.
Apparently, there is concern over excessive intervention or even direct control of the country by Iran. Yet it was the results of the 2003 invasion of Iraq and the overthrow of the regime that removed Iraq as a counterweight to Iran, and made it possible for Iraq to become the first Shia-ruled Arab country in several centuries. Iran too is ruled by Shias. Significant Iranian influence in Iraq is the inevitable outcome, and the U.S. and its allies in the region must adjust to it. A small contingent of American combat troops outside “cities, villages and localities” would hardly be able to prevent it.
The government of Iraq, with Nouri al Maliki as Prime Minister, is a fragile coalition dependent on the support of the Sadrist movement headed by the young cleric Moqtada al Sadr, who is adamantly opposed to the presence of American military forces. Sadr stated in early 2011 that if U.S. troops remained in Iraq, the Mahdi Army would be “reactivated” to attack American soldiers, bases and vehicles. As Toby Dodge, an expert on Iraq at the London School of Economics recently observed, any residual U.S. combat forces would be as vulnerable as “tethered goats,” given the provisions of the two agreements.
The U.S. invasion of Iraq was a costly misadventure, inflicting large numbers of casualties among Iraqis as well as our own troops, causing a civil war and some two million Iraqis to flee the country, and creating chaos within Iraq. It was appropriate under these circumstances for the United States to assist in the training of the Iraqi army and its police to enable the government to regain some semblance of order in the country. Much remains to be done, but it can’t be accomplished by U.S. combat forces.
It is evident that U.S. troops are not welcome in Iraq. Should the Iraqi government reluctantly agree to allow U.S. forces to remain in country despite the provision of the Status of Forces agreement to the contrary, its delicate political balance is likely to crumble, and a small contingent of American combat troops will be sitting ducks, subject to attack. The time has come for American combat troops to withdraw from Iraq in accordance with Status of Forces agreement.