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Out of Iraq Now? Not Quite.

The Status of Forces Agreement between the U.S. and Iraq was ratified on Thanksgiving Day, and if the holiday weren’t enough to drown it out of the news cycle, then the jihadist massacres in Mumbai surely were. Among those looking … Read More

By / December 11, 2008

The Status of Forces Agreement between the U.S. and Iraq was ratified on Thanksgiving Day, and if the holiday weren’t enough to drown it out of the news cycle, then the jihadist massacres in Mumbai surely were. Among those looking to certify Obama’s electoral victory as a sign that our involvement in Iraq is all but over, and U.S. troops are due to return home soon, the sofa, as the agreement is colloquially known, superficially gives cause for celebration. It states that all American combat troops return to their bases by June 2009, and that all withdraw from the country by the last calendar date of 2011. So that’s that, right?

Not so fast. Eli Lake at TNR reads between the lines, and echoes the conventional wisdom among both our own military establishment and Iraq’s:

A good picture of the size and shape of America’s future presence in Iraq can be found in a memo sent by retired General Barry McCaffrey earlier last month to the head of the social sciences department at West Point, Colonel Michael Meese. The "after action report" was written following a tour of Iraq that McCaffrey took in October, during which he met with Iraqi political and military leaders, as well as General Ray Odierno and Ambassador Ryan Crocker. McCaffrey has been a reliable weathervane of military thinking throughout the Iraq war (though his media career likely ended after The New York Times published an expose on his ties to defense contractors last week). He has also been a reliable surrogate for the thinking of Odierno and General David Petraeus, who understandably have tried to steer clear of the politics of the Iraq war.

In the report, obtained by The New Republic, McCaffrey writes, "We should assume that the Iraqi government will eventually ask us to stay beyond 2011 with a residual force of trainers, counterterrorist capabilities, logistics, and air power. (My estimate–perhaps a force of 20,000 to 40,000 troops)." This estimate of what a training and support mission would require was echoed in interviews with a State Department official and two military sources–who requested anonymity–when asked what kind of American presence they foresaw in Iraq following 2011.

McCaffrey’s reasoning rests in part on his view of the Iraqi military, an institution he says has vastly improved yet still needs mentoring, equipment, and support from Americans on the ground. In his report, McCaffrey writes that Iraq’s border-control service is "anemic" and that the army cannot currently conduct military operations without U.S. support and equipment. "The confidence of the Iraqi combat force is still dependant on US mentoring and backup," he writes. "Their officers are very explicit on this point–the iraqi security forces do not want the u.s. combat units to leave–yet." The capital letters are McCaffrey’s.

Lest you think that a former national security reporter for the New York Sun has a bias, consider that Fred Kaplan — whose views on the war went from liberal interventionism to the informed sophisticate’s answer to Pandagon — reported in 2006 on the physical realities of withdrawal for the Atlantic. His conclusion was that it wasn’t as easy to perform as Obama and company had been making out on the stump.

As I wrote for Pajamas Media months ago, in response to Obama’s out-of-date and alarmingly ad hoc campaign rhetoric on the war:

The bulk of our presence is Iraq is confined to what are known as Forward Operating Bases (FOBs), which are mostly located outside of cities and have excellent security. There are about 70 FOBs all across the country right now, and more than a dozen are giant military installations reminiscent, as Kaplan wrote, “of the West German garrisons from Cold War days,” the removal of which, needless to say, will not be easy, swift or likely given the capital investments they represent. Nor should one expect these facilities to be left unattended or manned solely by Iraqis. John McCain was quite right when he spoke of a prolonged U.S. presence in the Gulf, provided – and Obama and McCain’s liberal critics always fail to recapitulate this necessary condition – U.S. troops are not being targeted or killed. Most troops reside safely in these well-fortified FOBs, and they might continue to do so for the foreseeable future. As for the rest of the Pentagon’s materiel – tanks, trucks, armored vehicles, etc. – this will have to be evacuated slowly and under duress, with most of it traveling by ground toward Kuwait down Route Tampa, a highway favored by insurgents for its murderous potential due to its narrowness. (Evacuations by air would occur at an even more glacial pace, as the largest U.S. cargo plane can carry only one or two tanks per trip. There are 1,900 tanks in total in Iraq at present.)

The probable Obama model for withdrawal, if he ever gets around to sharing specifics, will in any event call for 30-35,000 troops, or roughly five brigades, to stay behind. In April, the candidate tellingly queried David Petraeus on the feasibility of keeping roughly this number in country if “we had the current status quo” in terms of security. Kaplan, too, cited 30,000 as the most “stripped-down” contingent required to occupy the FOBs. But even Lee Hamilton, who co-chaired the Iraq Study Group and has endorsed Obama, has scuppered the idea of setting any firm withdrawal date-it just isn’t possible, says the reputed “realist.” More notoriously, Obama’s former foreign policy adviser Samantha Power was fired not for calling Hillary Clinton a “monster” but for telling another truth, namely that any cited plan for withdrawal is a “best-case-scenario” subject to revision once Obama becomes commander-in-chief. Another way of saying this is that his current crowd-pleasing peroration of “Bring Them Home Now” is a feint.

 

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