Leave Iraq on time, with dignity
LIKE JILTED lovers, the US military and many of those who got us into the senseless invasion of Iraq have been pressing the Iraqi government to change its mind about removing all US troops by the December 2011 deadline. Over the last two weeks, both the secretary of defense and the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff have told Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki that time is running short for him to decide whether to ask the United States to stay. A senior US military official said that keeping US forces in the country would be “best for Iraq.’’
However, it is not in the best interests of either Iraq or the United States for American troops to remain after the deadline, which was agreed to by President George W. Bush and Maliki in the 2008 Status of Forces Agreement.
First, the Iraqis never wanted us to invade their country, and most believe that the deaths of several hundred thousand of their fellow citizens and the widespread destruction of the country in order to remove Saddam Hussein was not worth it. Maliki, who was our choice to become the head of the Iraqi government, summed up the Iraqi attitude in June 2009 when, under the terms of the Status of Forces Agreement, US troops had to withdraw from the cities and towns to their bases. Maliki announced to a jubilant populace that “we have repelled the invaders.’’
Moreover, it was Maliki who forced Bush to accept the timeline. The former president had envisioned a prolonged military presence with hundreds of bases and with American forces free to conduct military operations against what he perceived as Iraq’s internal and external enemies. If Maliki changes his mind, it will appear that he has caved to American pressure, and it will weaken his ability to govern.
Second, if US troops remain, violence against Americans may increase and Maliki’s government will likely collapse. Muqtada Al-Sadr, whose support was critical to Maliki’s success in forming a government even though he finished second in the elections, will likely withdraw his support from Maliki if he renegotiates the agreement, thus creating political chaos. In addition, he has promised to reconstitute his Mahdi Army militia, which could be joined by other Shi’ite extremist groups in attacking Americans.
Third, the Iraqi security forces do not need us. They already outnumber the remaining insurgents, and their counterterrorism units are first-rate. Although they are not yet ready to repel an invasion by a foreign government, there is little likelihood of that happening. Even Iran does not have to invade Iraq to have influence there. It was the Iranians who got Al-Sadr to support Maliki. And Maliki has repaid them by supporting their positions on Bahrain, Lebanon, and Hamas.
Fourth, just as the invasion of 2003 undermined the overall strategic interests of the United States, so too will keeping forces in Iraq beyond the agreed-upon date. It will enhance the Al Qaeda narrative about American intentions in the region and also make it impossible to get a negotiated settlement in Afghanistan. Remember Al Qaeda was not in Iraq until after the invasion and occupation and will likely come back in large numbers if we stay. Moreover, the Taliban will never accept a negotiated settlement with the Karzai government in Afghanistan if they do not trust us to leave that country at a date certain. Giving priority to Iraq over Afghanistan in 2003 undermined our interests by creating a quagmire in that country. Having troops in Iraq would do that again.
Removing our military from Iraq does not mean the United States will disengage. We can still provide aid and assistance and develop non-military exchanges and programs that can deepen the ties between our countries. But the future of Iraq is in the hands of its government and people. After eight years of military operations, including the surge and the expenditure of a trillion dollars and loss of 30,000 killed and wounded, we have not been able to remove the root causes of conflict in that country. Only the Iraqis can. By leaving at the end of this year, our troops can leave with the dignity they deserve.
Lawrence J. Korb is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress.