Will US troops leave Iraq in 2011?
I was asked recently by a friend what I thought would happen when the deadline for troop withdrawal from Iraq (December 2011) arrived. Here is my response, for what it is worth:
Like so many others who have been following the recent developments in Iraq, I do not have a settled opinion on what will happen to the US military presence there between now and the end of 2011, when the Status of Forces Agreement calls for the withdrawal of all troops (not just "combat" troops). For me, the (so far) definitive statement on this question by Obama was his 2006 election campaign statement at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, where he firmly asserted the need to maintain a (approximately 50,000 strong) US "strike force" in or near Iraq to guarantee US interests in the Middle East, to allow Washington to move quickly against jihadists in the region, and to make clear to "our enemies" that the US will not be "driven from the region." (I am attaching that document, which I still think is the most explicit expression of his thinking on this issue.) In that statement he said that this force could be stationed in Iraq, perhaps in Kurdistan, or in a nearby country (despite the absence of nearby candidates).
Since taking office he has neither reiterated nor repudiated this policy, but his actions have made it very clear that he is unwilling to sacrifice the 50k strike force, even while he has also said he would abide by the SOFA and remove all troops from Iraq by the end of 2011. In the meantime, Gates and various generals have released hedging statements or trial balloons (see the recent Tom Dispatch article by Engelhardt) saying that the 2011 deadline might be impractical and that various types of forces might stay longer, either to provide air power, to continue training the Iraq military, or to protect Iraq from invasion. Any or all of these could translate into the maintenance of the 50k strike force as well as the five (previously labeled as) "enduring bases."
Moreover, while there has been considerable coverage of the vast project undertaken by the U.S. military to remove the billions of equipment from Iraq, I have seen no reports of any dismantling of the five "enduring bases" and, as Engelhardt reports, continued effort to expand the already record-breaking Embassy to accommodate additional hundreds of administrators above the original 1000 projected US officials there.
Another sign that the Obama administration intends to maintain a significant military presence in Iraq after 2011 is the continued insistence that Iraqi "democracy" must be guaranteed. In "Washington speak," this means that the government of Iraq must be an ally of the United States, a condition that has been iterated and reiterated by all factions (GOP and Democrat) in Washington, since the original invasion. Given the increasing unwillingness of the Maliki administration to follow US dictates (for example, on oil contracts, on relations with Iran, and on relations with Anbar and other Sunni provinces), the removal of troops would allow Maliki even more leeway to pursue policies unacceptable to Washington. Thus, even if Maliki succeeds himself in the Premiership, the US may need troops to keep the pressure on him. If he does not succeed himself, then the likely alternate choices are far more explicit in their antagonism to integration of Iraq into the US sphere of interest. (Even Iyad Allawi -- the leader of the major contender for a parliamentary plurality -- who was once a US client premier, has voiced stronger and stronger opposition to tight relations with the US.). The Obama administration would then be left with the unacceptable prospect that withdrawal would result in Iraq adopting a posture not unlike Iran's with regard to US presence and influence in the Middle East.
All in all, there are myriad signs that withdrawal of U.S. troops might result in Iraq breaking free from U.S. influence and/or deprive the United States of the strong military presence in that part of the Middle East that both Bush and Obama advocated and have struggled to establish. Until I see some sign that the five bases are going to be dismantled, I will continue to believe that the US will find some reason -- with or without the consent of the Iraqi government -- to maintain a very large (on the order of 50k) military force there.