In announcing that all American troops will be out of Iraq by year’s end, President Obama has placed a big bet on the future of Iraq and on America’s position in a restive Middle East. While the initial public response to his decision, in America and in Iraq, may be positive, this will not shield him from the consequences if his bet goes sour.
The single most salient lesson in countries emerging from tyranny is the importance of providing security for the population. This is not just one of many tasks that must be addressed: security is the essential prerequisite to progress in the other two foreseeable challenges – in Iraq, Egypt, and now Libya: beginning a process of political reform and starting economic reconstruction.
The American government learned this lesson the hard way in Iraq. For several years after Saddam was thrown out we lacked the comprehensive counterinsurgency strategy and sufficient forces needed to provide security to the Iraqi people. Predictably, security deteriorated as an unholy alliance of Sunni and Shia terrorists, the first backed by al Qaeda, the other by Iran, took advantage of the situation. The deficiencies in strategy and troops while Iraq’s own national security forces were still in training produced a bloody and chaotic year in 2006.
There were two game-changers in Iraq.
1. President Bush’s courageous decision to change strategy and to surge forces. Contrary to widespread skepticism in the American political class, these decisions gradually brought the security under much better control.
2. The almost unimaginable stoicism of the Iraqi people. In many individual months in 2006 and early 2007, Iraqi casualties from terrorism were greater, as a percent of the country’s population, than the casualties America experienced on 9/11. Fortunately, by the summer of 2011 violence had fallen against both Americans and Iraqis.
Despite this progress, every Iraqi –Sunni or Shia, Arab or Kurd, man or woman – I have spoken to during the past year has insisted on the importance of keeping American forces in Iraq even after the expiration of the current Status of Forces Agreement. Despite a ramped-up program of military training, Iraqi military leaders have privately and publicly asserted that Iraq’s security forces are not yet prepared to protect the country. American military commanders share this assessment, which is one of several reasons a year ago the commanders on the ground recommended seeking Iraqi agreement to keep some 20,000 American troops there after 2011.
Without access to all the diplomatic exchanges between our countries, it is difficult to judge whether a better outcome was possible. Certainly Iraqi national feeling against granting American forces immunities was strong. Clearly, no president could agree to station them there without those immunities. But it is the essence of good statecraft to resolve conflicting interests. And it is clear from his words and body language that President Obama’s heart was not in winning the war in Iraq. Indeed, when he announced the withdrawal he merely noted that “America’s war in Iraq is over.” That is cold comfort to the millions of Iraqis who are left to fend for themselves in one of the world’s most dangerous regions.
The administration’s ill-disguised desire to get out of Iraq, mirrored by its decision to wage the war in Afghanistan on a political timetable, placed Iraqi politicians who wanted a residual American presence in an impossible situation. How could they stick their necks out to push for American troops when the administration gave them no cover?
In his announcement the president noted that American troops have been in Iraq nine years. But no war can be waged or won on a timetable. NATO forces are still in the Balkans after almost 20 years. American forces have been in Europe and Asia for more than a half-century. During my service in Europe I saw firsthand how those troops added to American security by deterring conflict in two vital areas of the world.
Perhaps quiet negotiations can still find a way to reverse this policy. American troops in Iraq would serve our joint interests in four ways:
First, by finishing the job of training Iraqi forces to defeat domestic enemies and deter foreign ones. Effective training requires professional American troops and Iraqis working side by side until the Iraqis are capable of handling the job themselves.
Second, by fighting al-Qaeda and Iranian-backed terrorists. Both are still active in Iraq. Our retreat will leave them a tempting vacuum.
Third, by continuing to provide an unspoken “buffer” along the Green Line that separates Iraqi Kurdish and Arab forces in the north.
Most importantly, a continuing American military presence would make it clear that America has enduring interests in the volatile Middle East and does not intend to let al Qaeda or Iraq’s neighbors, especially the terrorist states of Iran and Syria, benefit from any weakness of ours.
(L. Paul Bremer, III was formerly the Presidential Envoy to Iraq and is now the President of World Team Sports.)