US troops marching out - or are they?
By Gareth Porter
WASHINGTON - When the Barack Obama administration unveiled its plan last week
for an improvised State Department-controlled army of contractors to replace
all US combat troops in Iraq by the end of 2011, critics associated with the US
command attacked the transition plan, insisting that the United States must
continue to assume that US combat forces should and can remain in Iraq
And indeed, all indications are that the administration expects to renegotiate
the security agreement with the Iraqi government to
allow a post-2011 combat presence of up to 10,000 troops, once a new government
is formed in Baghdad.
However, Obama, fearing a backlash from anti-war voters in the Democratic Party
who have already become disenchanted with him over Afghanistan, is trying to
play down that possibility. Instead, the White House is trying to reassure its
anti-war base that the US military role in Iraq is coming to an end.
An unnamed administration official who favors a longer-term presence in Iraq
suggested to New York Times correspondent Michael Gordon last week that the
administration's refusal to openly refer to plans for such a US combat force in
Iraq beyond 2011 hinges on its concern about the coming congressional elections
and wariness about the continuing Iraqi negotiations on a new government.
Vice President Joe Biden said in an address prepared for delivery on Monday
that it would take a "complete failure" of Iraqi security forces to prompt the
United States to resume combat.
Obama referred to what he called "a transitional force" in his speech on August
2, pledging that it would remain "until we remove all our troops from Iraq by
the end of the next year".
He also declared an end to the US "combat mission" in Iraq as of August 31. But
an official acknowledged to Inter Press Service that combat would continue and
would not necessarily be confined to defending against attacks on US personnel.
The administration decided on the transition from military to civilian
responsibility for security at an inter-agency meeting in the week of July 19.
It made the broad outlines of the plan public at an August 16 State Department
news briefing and another briefing the following day, even though crucial
details had not been worked out.
Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Middle Eastern Affairs Colin Kahl and
Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs Michael Corbin
presented the administration plan for what they called a "transition from a
military to civilian relationship" with Iraq.
The plan involves replacing the official US military presence in Iraq with a
much smaller State Department-run force of private security contractors. Press
reports have indicated that the force will number several thousand, and that it
is seeking 29 helicopters, 60 improvised explosive device-proof personnel
carriers and a fleet of 1,320 armored cars.
The contractor force would also operate radars so it could call in air strikes
and fly reconnaissance drones, according to the New York Times on August 21.
Kahl argued that the transition was justified by security trends in Iraq. He
said al-Qaeda was "weaker than it's ever been", that Shi'ite cleric Muqtada
al-Sadr's Mahdi Army had been "largely disbanded", and that there was no
strategic threat to the regime.
That provoked predictable criticism from those whose careers have become linked
to the fate of the US military in Iraq and who continue to view the United
States as having enormous power to decide the fate of the country.
Kenneth Pollack of the Brookings Institution, a frequent visitor to Iraq at the
invitation of General David Petraeus and his successor General Ray Odierno,
dismissed the idea of giving the former US military role in Iraq to the State
Department and said Kahl's assessment of security trends was far too
Some officials were talking "as if we're on the five-yard line," Pollack told
the Christian Science Monitor. "We're on more like the 40 - and it's probably
Pollack argued that the US had great influence in Iraq, which it must use for
"persuading" Iraqi leaders to do various things. If the US troop presence ended
in 2011, he argued, that US power would suffer.
Other variants of that argument were offered by Stephen Biddle of the Council
on Foreign Relations and Michael O'Hanlon of the Brookings Institution, both of
whom have been frequent guests of the US command in Iraq and who have generally
hewed to the military view of Iraq policy.
Former ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker, who shared the media spotlight and
adulation of the US Congress with Petraeus in 2007-2009 before retiring from
the Foreign Service, opined that the military needed to keep enough presence in
Iraq to encourage Iraq's generals to stay out of politics.
The real position of the administration over the issue is not much different
from that of its critics, however. In answer to a question after a briefing on
August 17, Kahl said, "We're not going to abandon them. We're in this for the
Then Kahl observed, "Iraq is not going to need tens of thousands of [American]
forces." That is consistent with the figure of 5,000 to 10,000 being called for
by the military, according to the administration official quoted in New York
Times on August 18.
At another point, Kahl said, "We'll just have to see what the Iraqi government
will do," adding that the "vast majority of political actors in Iraq want a
long-term partnership with the United States".
It is been generally assumed among US officers and diplomats and the Iraqi
officials with whom they talk that once a new Iraqi government is agreed on, it
will begin talks on a longer-term US troop presence, as former National
Security Council official Brett H McGurk told the New York Times last month.
At a Pentagon press conference on February 22, Odierno, US overall commander in
Iraq, referred to the purchase by the Iraqi government of "significant amounts
of military material from the United States", including M1A1 tanks and
Odierno said he expected it would require a "small contingent" to "train and
advise" the Iraqis. That formula implicitly anticipated a continuation of the
US combat presence in the guise of "advisory and assistance" units.
But the administration apparently made it clear to Odierno and others that they
were not to contradict the administration's public posture that US troops were
being withdrawn by the end of 2011.
During the inter-agency meeting that adopted the Obama administration
transition plan, Odierno told reporters at a breakfast meeting on July 21 he
expected US troops to be down to zero by the end of 2011.
Meanwhile, the Nuri al-Maliki government is not admitting publicly that it
would consider such an extension of the US troop presence. A spokesman for
Maliki said on August 12 there were alternatives to keeping US troops in the
country, such as signing "non-aggression and non- interference pacts" with
Gareth Porter is an investigative historian and journalist specializing
in US national security policy. The paperback edition of his latest book,
Perils of Dominance: Imbalance of Power and the Road to War in Vietnam, was
published in 2006.