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How Not to “Lose” Iraq

In today’s Wall Street Journal I make the case that a continuing American military presence in Iraq post-2011 would very much be in our interest—because it would enable us to influence not only Iraq’s future course but also the future course of the entire region. Yet time is running out to renegotiate the Status of Forces agreement which President Bush signed in 2008 and which mandates the departure of all 50,000 U.S. troops by the end of this year.

So far there has been scant interest expressed from either President Obama or Prime Minister Maliki in a continuing troop presence. Even if Maliki suddenly decided that it was in Iraq’s interest to host some American troops in the future—and it is—he would have a hard time getting an agreement through parliament where the Sadrists, among others, would be sure to oppose it on nationalist/religious grounds.

What, then, should we do? Sit back and hope that a thousand State Department diplomats could do the job now performed by 50,000 troops? Or just write off Iraq as a bad investment and accept that the risks of civil strife and Iranian domination will rise after our departure?

Those are, sad to say, the likeliest options if we don’t decide to keep at least 20,000 troops in Iraq. But there are also some second- or third-best options that could allow us to retain some influence even if we don’t have a substantial troop presence. Many of these options were discussed on Friday at a forum in Washington, sponsored by the Institute for the Study of War (ISW), where I spoke along with retired Lieutenant General James Dubik, Michael O’Hanlon of the Brookings Institution, and Emma Sky of Harvard’s Kennedy School.

Among the scenarios we batted around: Beefing up the Office of Security Cooperation, currently scheduled to be roughly 150 military personnel stationed in the U.S. Embassy, tasked with advising Iraqi forces. Perhaps it might be possible to expand this office and set up a U.S. Military Assistance and Advisory Group that could in total number several thousand soldiers. Set up a NATO Training Mission that could also assist this task. Schedule regular exercises between the U.S. and Iraqi armed forces that would allow thousands of U.S. troops to visit Iraq for a brief period. Expand our exchange program with the Iraqi military to allow more officers to study in the U.S. and other Western countries. Expand the existing Strategic Framework Agreement, also signed by Bush and Maliki in 2008, into an explicit U.S.-Iraq alliance with mutual-defense obligations. Set up a United Nations peacekeeping force to patrol the border between the Kurdish Regional Government and Iraq proper. Station U.S. troops in the Kurdish region where they would definitely be welcome.

None of these options would achieve the strategic effects of keeping 20,000 troops in Iraq, but they would be better than nothing. I am reluctant to spend too much time and energy discussing them at this point because there is still a chance, however slim, of actually extending the U.S. troop deployment. But time is running out and we should put all options on the table to ensure that we don’t “lose” Iraq out of sheer neglect after having come so close to a successful outcome.