February 27, 2009

I wrote earlier (at Newshoggers) that there was still an Iraq debate to be had - namely whether the US' word, as set down in the SOFA agreement with Iraq, is worth the paper it's printed on. There's a considerable body of opinion in military and neo-whatever circles that says it isn't.

Bob Fertik emails to note that, five minutes before Obama announced his withdrawal timetable, NBC was quoting commanders as saying it wasn't binding on them. Just before Obama's said "I intend to remove all U.S. troops from Iraq by the end of 2011," NBC Pentagon correspondent Jim Miklaszewski told David Gregory that military commanders are making plans as if the SOFA and the orders of the Commander in Chief were irrelevant.

Miklaszewski: Secretary Gates, as early as 18 months to 2 years ago, was saying "look, everyone understands that we're going to have to start withdrawing from Iraq." But at the same time, Gates adds this caveat that he believes significant numbers of troops will remain in Iraq for years to come.

And in fact military commanders, despite this Status of Forces Agreement with the Iraqi government that all US forces would be out by the end of 2011, are already making plans for a significant number of American troops to remain in Iraq beyond that 2011 deadline, assuming that Status of Forces Agreement agreement would be renegotiated.

And one senior military commander told us that he expects large numbers of American troops to be in Iraq for the next 15 to 20 years, David.

Gregory: 15 to 20 years, I think that takes a moment to really sink in. With a mission that is primarily what over that kind of time horizon, Mik?

Miklaszewski: Again it would evolve from a day-to-day combat mission, to more of an oversight mission. We mustn't forget the US is providing nearly 100% of all combat air support over Iraq, and the Iraqi military is not going to be ready to assume that mission within the next 18 months to 2 years, it's going to be impossible.

And there are some discussions, I know Richard Engel mentioned the area of Kirkuk up in the north recently, there are some discussions among Iraqis and I know some military commanders to establish what could end up as a permanent air base, US air base, in Kirkuk.

Gregory: Striking.

Which just goes to show that we should be very leary of leaving withdrawal up to those who have a natural inclination not to withdraw. Generations of "surprise" babies will tell you how well that works out. Bob Gates may say that senior commanders are all behind Obama's plan, but there's a lot of reporting says they aren't.

These people are treading a dangerous course, as Marc Lynch explains. He writes that "Iraqis will be watching carefully to see whether the United States honors its commitments" in the months leading up to an Iraqi referendum on the SOFA agreement on July 31st and that if they don't see the right answer then the referendum will be a resounding "no" - at which point the US will have only 12 months to get everyone out of Iraq or occupy the country illegally again.

The argument for a significant, early withdrawal of U.S. combat forces remains overwhelming. Indeed, a failure to deliver on the promise of early U.S. withdrawals is the most likely thing to cause a rapid deterioration in conditions in Iraq....The new administration will get only one chance to demonstrate the credibility of its commitments, and indefinitely leaving troops at current levels will only postpone rather than solve the problems.

The US must make a substantial down payment on withdrawal now, or suffer later. Not just in Iraq, although the problems there would be bad enough, but on the world stage.

Crossposted from Newshoggers

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