WASHINGTON -- The Obama administration is evaluating whether to keep troops in Iraq beyond the planned withdrawal date, a decision that would extend an unpopular war that the American public expected to end this year.
The Status of Forces Agreement signed by Iraq and the United States during the Bush administration says all U.S. troops must leave Iraq by Dec. 31, 2011. But the contract also leaves the door open to further negotiations that would delay withdrawal.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates has said members of the Iraqi government have indicated they are "very open to a continuing presence" by the United States.
"And so the [Iraqi] politicians, I think, the leaders understand the need for this kind of help, but no one wants to be the first one there supporting it," added Gates, acknowledging such a decision will face resistance in Iraq (not to mention in the United States, where just 33 percent of the public now supports the war).
Pentagon spokesperson Elizabeth Robbins confirmed to The Huffington Post that U.S. forces could stay beyond 2011 to help the Iraqi Security Forces fill the "gaps" in their operations.
"[W]e are willing to entertain a request for continued assistance, consistent with our commitment to a long-term partnership with Iraq -- but the ball is in the Iraqis' court to ask," she wrote in an email statement.
The United States has been in Iraq since 2003, and there are currently about 47,000 U.S. troops still in the country. Withdrawal, set to seriously go into effect by late summer, involves not only removing U.S. forces, but also pulling 63,000 contractors, closing 100 bases and getting rid of one million pieces of equipment.
Consequently, in late April, Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Adm. Mike Mullen said Iraqi leaders must decide "within weeks" whether they want U.S. troops to stay because the military would soon have to make "irrevocable" logistical decisions.
Maren Leed, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, told The Huffington Post that a strong contingent in the Pentagon believes the United States needs to remain in Iraq since the country does not yet have a fully stable security and rule of law environment. Those officials will likely try accommodate an Iraqi request to stay even if it comes at the end of 2011, but are pushing to make it happen earlier.
"They really would like to see some kind of arrangement worked out as soon as possible -- to minimize the cost, allow the argument to play out and figure out how to play it down in the best possible way," said Leed. "It's going to take some spade work to be certain, on this end, in lots of different camps. They'd like to know what they're selling, sooner rather than later. So I think there's a fair amount of urgency."
Congressional leaders have already begun to embrace -- or, in some cases, brace themselves -- for this possibility.
House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) recently said he would support the Obama administration if it decides to keep troops in Iraq beyond 2011.
Last month, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) said, "If we're not smart enough to work with the Iraqis to have 10,000 to 15,000 American troops in Iraq in 2012, Iraq could go to hell."
“I think it's also obvious that the Iraqi military doesn't have a lot of the technological capability that they need to combat to this kind of insurgency that is still out there," argued Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) in February.
House Armed Services Committee Ranking Member Adam Smith (D-Wash.) has also said it's "highly likely" Iraq will ask the United States to extend its presence, claiming the number of troops left in the country could be as high as 20,000.
But while some have started to discuss the issue, it's still not commanding the same level of attention as, for example, the pace of withdrawal from Afghanistan.
Leed said one explanation for this is that keeping U.S. troops in Iraq will no doubt be unpopular with the public and a tricky political issue as politicians search for ways to cut federal spending.
"Both parties have essentially said this is not an expense that we want to keep on the books," said Leed of the war in Iraq, adding, "Neither side is going to have an appetite for wanting to be out in front saying this is what we want to do. This is something that Congress will happily say is an executive branch initiative."
In a recent Boston Globe op-ed, Center for American Progress Senior Fellow Lawrence J. Korb argued keeping U.S. troops in Iraq beyond the December deadline would actually damage America's national security interests: violence against Americans could increase and the chances of success in Afghanistan would diminish.
"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," wrote Korb.
"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."