Top US general miss-steps
By Raed Jarrar and Erik Leaver
Last week, United States President Barack Obama's out-of-control military brass
once again leaked a statement contrary to the president's position. This time
the statement came from army General Ray Odierno, the top US commander in Iraq,
who officially requested to keep a combat brigade in the northern part of the
country beyond the August 2010 deadline.
Floating this idea just two weeks before the Iraqi national elections is
dangerous for Iraqi democracy, for US soldiers on the ground and for the future
of US-Iraqi relations.
Quickly responding to his soldiers marching out of step, Defense
Secretary Robert Gates announced that there would have to be a "pretty
significant" deterioration in the security situation in Iraq before he would
consider delaying the planned withdrawal.
But much of the damage was already done. Those supporting an extension
immediately created an echo chamber in the media. Thomas Ricks, senior fellow
at the Center for a New American Security, published an op-ed in The New York
Times and another in Foreign Policy urging Obama to delay the withdrawals of
combat troops scheduled this year, and cancel final troop withdrawals scheduled
for the end of 2011.
Ricks, who reported the leak by Odierno, is publicly betting that in four years
the United States will have nearly 30,000 troops still on the ground. That's no
way to make policy in Iraq. Rick's Foreign Policy piece went as far as claiming
that Odierno "got a polite nod from the president when the issue was raised
during his recent meetings in Washington".
Obama has consistently said he would comply with the August 31 deadline to
remove combat forces from Iraq. He repeated this dozens of times on the
campaign trail, stated it clearly at Camp Lejeune last year, and also repeated
this policy in his Cairo speech. Vice President Biden affirmed this policy
numerous times, saying in February, "You're going to see 90,000 American troops
come marching home by the end of the summer." And just last week, the White
House reaffirmed its intention to call an end to operation Iraqi Freedom by
The US Congress confirmed the president's policy by including clear language
recognizing and supporting the deadlines for the withdrawal of combat forces in
both the FY10 defense appropriations and defense authorization bills. Last
month 28 members of congress, including the chairman of the House Foreign
Affairs Committee, sent a letter to Obama commending him on his plan to
withdraw combat forces by August 31, regardless of the situation on the ground.
Outrage in Iraq
Flying in the face of these consistent messages of assurance by the White House
and congress, Odierno's statement has harmed the president's credibility in
Iraq and caused the first major storm of criticism inside the country since
Obama's election in 2008.
The Iraqi media have been overwhelmed with political statements, analysis, and
press releases condemning the possible prolongation of the US occupation. In
one statement, member of parliament (MP) Omar al-Jubouri, a Sunni from the
National Iraqi Coalition, rejected the attempts to change the withdrawal plans,
telling the Nina News Agency that while he "acknowledges the troubled
administrative and security situation", he still "holds the US forces
responsible" for the deterioration.
In another statement, covered by al-Sabaah newspaper, MP Jamal Jaafar, a
Shi'ite from the United Iraqi Alliance, argued that prolonging the US presence
"will cause more tension" among Iraqis. Jaafar also stated that the United
States must "get an approval from the Iraqi government" if it was planning to
leave even "one single soldier in Iraq beyond the withdrawal deadline included
in the bilateral security agreement”.
MP Abdul-Karim As-Sameraie, chairman of the Parliamentary Defense Committee,
criticized the attempt to change the withdrawal plans and asked again for a
public referendum on the bilateral security agreement. Such a measure could
result in the cancellation of the agreement, potentially leading to an earlier
US withdrawal or having troops operate in Iraq without international legal
Consequences of waffling
An Obama flip-flop on the timetable for withdrawing US troops would have
serious consequences in the United States and Iraq. The US global image will be
tarnished, Obama's credibility will be called into question, and the
administration will likely lose what little global political capital it gained
in the last year.
But reneging on withdrawal would have the gravest consequences in Iraq. The
Bush administration adopted a conditions-based withdrawal plan. The mantra was
"as Iraqis stand up, we will stand down." But such plans for "condition-based"
withdrawal create the very deteriorating conditions that lead to an extension
of the military occupation.
Unfortunately, there is considerable support both inside and outside Iraq for
the continuation of US occupation. Some groups, such as the Iraqi ruling
parties or the military industrial complex in the United States, believe
occupation is in their self-interest. Others, such as al-Qaeda, hope to cripple
the United States by keeping it engaged in a conflict that takes an enormous
toll on human lives, money and global reputation. And Iran and other regional
players fear the reemergence of a strong, independent and united Iraq.
Obama's current plan is based on two sets of time-based deadlines that avoid
the pitfalls of a conditions-based withdrawal. Obama's plan to withdraw combat
forces by August 31, 2010 and Bush's bilateral agreement for the withdrawal of
all troops and contractors by December 31, 2011 both put the responsibility for
military, economic and political security squarely where it should be: on
Adding more years to the US occupation, as Ricks suggested, or delaying the
withdrawal of combat forces, as Odierno has suggested, will cost the United
States hundreds of billions more dollars and result in the deaths of countless
more US soldiers and Iraqi civilians. Most importantly, it won't bring Iraq any
closer to being a stable and prosperous country.
On the eve of Iraq's March 7 elections, the president needs to reaffirm the
US-Iraqi withdrawal agreement and issue a clear warning to military officers
who seek to take the war into their own hands.
Raed Jarrar is a senior fellow on the Middle East at Peace Action. Erik
Leaver is a research fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies.