Today, Barack Obama used the NYT op-ed pages to lay out his current thinking on Iraq. What he writes provides a clear and welcome alternative to what John McCain proposes for Iraq. However, Obama still envisages the retention in Iraq of a continuing US military presence of some size– an idea that we (and he) should all understand quite clearly is not acceptable to the Iraqis.
The good part of what he wrote:
- on my first day in office, I would give the military a new mission: ending this war.
It’s excellent that he said “ending” and not “winning.” However, I think that what he proposes would not result in ending the war.
Also, those of us who are independent citizens can make this demand for war termination of our current president, right now. Indeed, Obama would have a lot more credibility if he did this, too– especially given his continuing responsibilities as a U.S. Senator. He writes that his plan would see the removal of US “combat brigades” within 16 months. But if the clock for that withdrawal, or any other withdrawal plan, does not start start ticking till late January 2009 rather than today, then we will have lost six months’ worth of additional war losses and casualties.
Bring them home now!
Actually, Bush administration officials have already been clearly signaling that they may well be withdrawing more combat brigades than previously planned, in the months between now and January. Obama should make clear that he supports this effort at redeployment/de-escalation, and that he welcomes the fact that it will allow total withdrawal to be completed even sooner than his plan envisages.
But that’s a relatively minor quibble compared with the fact that, even after the withdrawal of “combat brigades” that he calls for, Obama still plans to keep a very significant combat presence in Iraq for a further, undefined period of time.
Here’s how he defines the mission of this continuing force:
- a residual force in Iraq would perform limited missions: going after any remnants of Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia, protecting American service members and, so long as the Iraqis make political progress, training Iraqi security forces.
Let’s look at these missions in order:
- 1. Going after Al-Qaeda remnants: Juan Cole helpfully points out that no-one calls themselves “Al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia” any more. There are remnants of Sunni-salafi militancy inside Iraq, true, going under other names. But they’ve been considerably whittled down by now– primarily through political and monetary interventions, and not through the application of US military force. Where US “terrorist-hunters” have applied massive military force against suspected targets– in Iraq or in Afghanistan– the result has nearly always been disastrous and highly counter-productive.
Also, what is the legal-juridical basis for the US to take on this role in Iraq? It could only do so through an agreement freely signed by a legitimate Iraqi government. No Iraqi government is about to give this role to the Americans.
As Juan writes, “The way to get out of Iraq is to get out of Iraq.” Too right! This is also exactly what I’ve been arguing consistently here for the past five years, including on the occasions when I produced clear plans as to how that could be achieved in an orderly (i.e. “responsible”) way. In fall of 2006, I note, Juan Cole was still arguing that there could indeed be a continuing US force in Iraq with some limited missions. I am glad that he’s gained some better sense of things since then.
2. Protecting American service members: This one is truly hilarious! US service members need to serve in Iraq to– protect US service members! Yeah, but then the ones who’re doing the protecting there will also need to be protected; and those additional protectors will also need protection; and… Hey, let’s just fill the whole country up with US service members all protecting each other! (Irony alert, folks.)
No, this is a trivial and silly thing for Obama to mention. Of course, if any military unit of any country is deployed anywhere in the world, it needs to be attentive to its own self-protection. But to describe force protection on its own as a separate mission is ridiculous!
The only slightly valid consideration here is the need to make sure that, as the US troop withdrawal occurs, it does so under circumstances in which the retreating units are not under fire. This calls for numerous force protection measures; but the vast majority of them are political. That is, to reach political agreements with all the relevant parties– and yes, that would include Iran and the other neighbors of Iraq– to ensure that that is the case.
I do wonder where this little rubric of deploying forces with the mission only of protecting other forces came from? I recall that in an earlier version of Obama’s plan, or perhaps one like it, there was mention of leaving a residual force with the mission of protecting the Green Zone. So it is good to see that that is now off the table. Indeed, the whole of what we might call “the Green Zone model of imperial governance” seems to have become largely OBE-ed by now, since the US governors in Iraq no longer have a compliant Iraqi government to deal with– and much of the Iraqi government’s most significant business, including its hosting of Pres. Ahmadinejad, has been taking place quite pointedly outside the US Green Zone.
3. “So long as the Iraqis make political progress, training Iraqi security forces: This one is almost equally hilarious. First question– what is the definition of this “progress”, and who gets to judge whether the Iraqi government forces have met this benchmark? Second question: If the Iraqi government forces are judged not to have met the benchmark, what then? The US trainers are simply withdrawn?
This proposed “residual mission” for the US forces in Iraq is a silly and patronizing remnant of the Green Zone model of imperial governance. Yes, it is quite possible that the Iraqi security forces will need some continuing training. (Though some of them have already gotten quite a lot from Iran all along. The US has never had the monopoly on this.) If so, let the Iraqis themselves figure out what configuration of foreigners they want to invite in to provide it.
The most urgent security needs of Iraq’s people are for (1) an effective nationwide gendarmerie force that can assure public security in all regions; and (2) a way to ensure that none of their neighbors invade their country or come to exercise undue forms of non-military influence there. Both of these security needs require solid political underpinnings to be met. The first, through attainment of a robust and sustainable political agreement among all the country’s significant political forces; and the second, through attainment of a robust and sustainable agreement between Iraq and all of its neighbors that governs the nature of their interactions in the region.
The presence of foreign military “trainers,” from any country, is actually counter-productive to the attainment of these agreements.
Iraqis know how to fight, and plenty of them know how to coordinate military and police actions on a large scale. They don’t need Americans to teach them those things. And the presence of Americans considerably complicates the attainment of the required political agreements, both internally and regionally.
As I wrote in the Christian Science Monitor in July 2005:
- A prior US announcement of imminent total withdrawal will focus the minds of Iraqis considerably and show them they’ll truly be masters of their own fate. They’ll see the need to work together politically to figure out what follows. And they’ll be far less hospitable to insurgents, especially those who get their impetus from the prospect of a prolonged foreign occupation.
And as Juan Cole wrote today: The way to get out is to get out.
Juan also makes some useful observations about the weakness of Obama’s assumption, regarding Afghanistan, that simply the addition of a few thousand more US forces doing what the US has been doing in Afghanistan will solve the problem there.
However, I don’t believe that even that criticism goes nearly far enough. As we turn more of our attention to the rapid deterioration of the US-NATO project in Afghanistan, we need to understand a lot more about the sheer inappropriateness and impracticality of having those two bodies, the US and NATO– so distant from the concerns of Afghanistan’s people both geographically and culturally– take responsibility for “restoring stability” to the country’s long war-ravaged people. This is an imperialistic and militaristic project that needs to be considerably rethought and reconfigured– in conjunction with all the other regional and world powers and broad segments of Afghanistan’s people– if it is to have any chance of success.
So we do need to cast an increasingly watchful eye on developments in Afghanistan. But first, let’s get these US troops out of Iraq and give that country’s people a chance of regaining true national sovereignty.
Barack Obama starts to point us in the direction to achieve that. But he doesn’t go nearly far enough.
Bottom line: too little, too late.