Why We're Leaving Troops in Iraq

Not strategy or necessity, but domestic Washington politics -- and domestic Baghdad politics -- appear to be behind the decision

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A U.S. solider mans his rifle while on patrol / Reuters

Reports that the Pentagon may leave only a token U.S. force of 3,000 to 4,000 troops in Iraq at year's end suggest that domestic politics have trumped strategic calculations in both Washington and Baghdad.

For its part, the White House is determined to fulfill President Obama's pledge to finally end an unpopular and costly war in Iraq and begin "nation building at home." In Baghdad's Green Zone, Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki has apparently concluded that coalition politics at home and the unpopularity of an eight-year occupation block him from requesting in public the continued U.S. presence he knows Iraq needs.

The result is heightened risk that the democratic transition both nations have staked so much blood and treasure on could fail at the finish line.

The Iraqis had indicated that they might have been willing to accept 10,000 residual U.S. forces, a senior U.S. military official with extensive experience in Iraq told National Journal. The smaller number seems to have been based on "very little analysis of the actual mission requirements," he said, adding that the final decision on U.S. troop levels will be carefully watched by two key constituencies - the Iranian government and the Iraqi people.

A smaller military presence will have Iraqis bending to Iranian pressure, the official claimed, warning against "unintended messages" with this troop decision.

Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta insists that no final decision has been made on U.S. troop levels after the current status of forces agreement with Iraq expires at the end of December. As they have for many months, U.S. officials continue to insist that the ball is in Baghdad's court, and they await a request from Iraq on the desired level of U.S. forces. With the clock now winding down on withdrawing the remaining forces, however, Panetta reportedly supports the White House preference for only a few thousand troops remaining. That runs counter to a reported proposal by Gen. Lloyd Austin III, the senior commander in Iraq, for a continued presence of between 14,000 to 18,000 U.S. troops.

"Would it be desirable for the U.S. to have 14,000 to 18,000 troops in Iraq next year to deter Iran, help Iraqi security forces intervene against critical threats from terrorists or insurgents, to conduct counterterrorism raids, and to help man checkpoints along the tense northern border between Kurds and Arabs? Yes, all of that would have been desirable," said Anthony Cordesman, a strategic analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.  "Unfortunately, for 18 months, U.S. and Iraqi officials have tried to reach a strategic framework agreement that would spell out the continuing U.S. presence, and they have failed because no Iraqi politician can be seen openly inviting a big U.S. force to remain in their country."

The Obama administration has given no indication of which missions might fall by the wayside if the decision is made to leave only 3,000 to 4,000 troops in Iraq. U.S. forces could continue to help deter Iran with fixed-wing airpower from an air base in Kuwait and from aircraft carriers in the Persian Gulf, for instance, and the State Department is already scheduled to assume responsibility for training Iraqi police forces. Even at the lower force levels, the U.S. military could conceivably follow through with plans to establish three training centers to provide sustainment training for Iraqi army battalions, senior military sources say, and to jointly conduct targeted counterterrorism operations with Iraqi Special Forces units.

But military officials say a smaller presence couldn't adequately protect State Department or U.S. Agency for International Development missions, claiming that one brigade combat team would be enough to protect either one of them but not both.

Even if a residual U.S. force provided training to the Iraqi military, and the State Department relied on private contractors to provide security for the largest embassy compound and diplomatic footprint in the world, U.S. troops could not continue to patrol the ethnic divides inside Iraq between Kurds and Arabs, Sunnis and Shiite. Yet it was tensions along those ethnic and sectarian fault-lines that nearly plunged the country into civil war in 2007.

"The most important missions you forgo at the lower troop levels are the confidence-building measures that U.S. forces routinely undertook, which offered psychological assurances to the Iraqis just by virtue of our troops being there," said Michael O'Hanlon, a senior fellow and defense analyst at the Brookings Institution. "There are a lot of nefarious forces and extremism still at work in Iraqi politics and society and lingering ethnic tensions. At lower U.S. troop levels, I think there's at least a moderate risk that events could spin out of control and once again lead to civil war."