During his latest trip to the Middle East, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates chose to wrap up his meetings in Iraq, where he spoke briefly to the more than 47,000 American troops still operating in that country. Answering questions from individual soldiers about Washington’s plans for the country, the defense secretary walked a fine line, speaking to two different audiences who hold two vastly different objectives.
The first and most important target throughout his remarks was the American people, where Gates attempted to assure Americans tired of the war that the commitment in Iraq was winding down. Yet it is the second audience, the Iraqi people, who may prove to be the determining factor, especially as Pentagon officials debate whether to keep a small contingent of American troops on Iraqi soil after January 2012.
As it stands, all American military personnel are to pack up their gear and leave Iraq by the end of this year, in accordance with the Status of Forces Agreement signed years earlier by the Iraqi government and the Bush Administration. The State Department is scheduled to take over all of the Pentagon’s duties, from the protection of US Embassies and consults to the training of Iraqi police and military units. Most of the large bases set up by the American military have been transferred to the Iraqi Security Forces, as have most of the detainees who were captured on the battlefield. Only a small group of Al Qaeda militants remains in American hands.
Collectively, all of this would indicate that Washington loves nothing more than to leave Iraq sooner before the security situation gets worse. The era of fiscal responsibility has forced the United States government to look for ways to cut down on operating costs across the board, and getting out of Iraq would certainly help that goal by eliminating billions of dollars in supplemental funding.
The problem, as Gates made clear in his speech before heading back to Washington, is the fact that Iraq is still anything but firmly secure. Weeks ago, Al Qaeda in Iraq demonstrated its cohesiveness and planning ability by storming into a provincial government building in Tikrit, taking hostages and executing over fifty people.
Shootings and political assassinations are routine across the country, with most concentrating on security forces, political leaders and pro-government militias such as the Sons of Iraq. Baghdad’s armed forces continue to have an ambivalent, if not hostile, relationship with Kurdish soldiers in the north, as is clearly seen in and around the oil rich city of Kirkuk.
To add insult to injury, the Iraqi military is still weak and ineffectual in protecting the country from external threats. Despite improvements in its numbers, competency and professionalization, Iraqi soldiers lag far behind their Iranian and Saudi counterparts in the realms of border security and conventional war fighting. The Iraqi air force is practically nonexistent, with most funds going to ground forces.
None of this even begins to scratch the surface of Iraq’s confusing politics, which has been held together this year by a loose coalition alliance.
The question then is whether the United States will agree to leave some troops behind in order to fill those capability gaps. Such a decision could only come at the request of the Iraqi government, a fact that Gates is adamant about.
Sensing that his entire governing coalition could fall apart, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki may find it more reasonable to hedge his bets and hope that his own security forces can train themselves without American assistance. The Sadrist block, led by the Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, has already stated that it would withdraw its parliamentarians from the government if Maliki makes a request for a residual American troops presence.
The ball is fully in the Iraqis’ court. Maliki is hamstrung between two courses of action, jeopardizing his government by asking the United States to stay yet risking all of the progress his country has made if foreign troops leave as scheduled. With the January 2012 deadline getting closer, he better decide one way or the other. As Gates said in front of his troops, “they have to ask, and time is running out.”