Speculation as to whether the United States were going to leave a small residual troop presence in Iraq after the end of the year are over. In a press conference Friday afternoon, President Barack Obama put the final nail in the coffin of America’s military mission in Iraq, announcing that all American soldiers will be out of the country by New Year’s, 2012.
Over the next two months, our troops in Iraq — tens of thousands of them — will pack up their gear and board convoys for the journey home. The last American soldiers will cross the border out of Iraq with their heads held high, proud of their success and knowing that the American people stand united in our support for our troops. That is how America’s military efforts in Iraq will end.
The president’s statement is sure to get on the nerves of his Republican presidential challengers, a majority of whom have pushed for an extended troop mandate in Iraq to both train Iraqi Security Forces and to keep Iranian influence at bay.
It may be safe to speculate that the top military officer in Iraq, General Lloyd Austin III, also have liked the administration to hold off on its announcement for another few weeks — or at least the time it would take the Iraqi government to sign off on a new agreement. It was reported over a month ago that the American military command in Iraq supported a residual troop presence of between 14- and 18,000, which in the minds of the generals would have been enough to cement the security improvements that the Iraqis have accomplished since 2007. Defense secretary Leon Panetta reportedly favored a much smaller force structure.
After last week’s announcement, all of those plans and numbers are useless. Nearly nine years of combat in Iraq, with around 4,500 American casualties and over a trillion dollars in spending to show for it, will be over in two months.
The issue that prevented the Americans and Iraqis from signing a new security agreement was the question of immunity.
The White House demanded that any remaining troops in Iraq would be covered under an immunity clause to protect soldiers from being arrested and whisked away into an Iraqi courtroom in the event of a combat operation gone wrong. The fractious Iraqi government under Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki was unable to grant Washington’s wishes. American troops are unpopular in Iraq — a repercussion of nine years of fighting, over 100,000 Iraqi civilians killed, and Iraq’s social fabric being torn asunder.
What is next for Iraq is uncertain. The country’s security situation remains precarious with shootings and bombings occurring on an almost daily basis. Iraqi soldiers and police are sitting ducks for the insurgents who continue to plot attacks that are designed to show the average Iraqi how poor government performance is in basic policing. Al Qaeda in Iraq is battered, but not beaten. High profile and mass casualty attacks remain the norm for the group, as does the assassination of Sunni tribal figures that are a part of the Awakening Program.
Legislation is often deadlocked in the Iraqi parliament due to its sectarian dynamics. Iraq may be a state in the formal sense but its politicians frequently place their Sunni, Shia and Kurdish constituencies ahead of the national interest. The parties have still not agreed on candidates for the defense and interior ministries, to which Maliki simply nominated his own picks without approval from his opponents.
Then there is the matter of Iraqi democracy which has consistently been the main theme of the American mission since 2003. The short answer is that Iraq’s democracy is not exactly working at the moment, with peaceful Iraqi protests being shut down by Maliki’s security forces and the winner of last year’s parliamentary elections, Ayad Allawi, failing to reclaim the title of prime minister.
Iraq’s troubles are far from over but the American withdrawal might convince its leaders that they have to work together. They no longer have the United States military as an insurance card although the Department of State will have the world’s largest embassy system in the country. Yet even with that system in place, there will no longer be tens of thousands of troops to watch over Iraq’s hot spots which should be an incentive for the politicians to start looking ahead.