How concerned should we be about demands emanating from the Maliki government for a withdrawal timetable for U.S. troops? Unless something changes dramatically, the answer I would give is: not very.
That’s not because the situation in Iraq is so stable that we can pull out American forces without doing any damage. Despite recent gains in security, the situation remains fragile and U.S. forces will need to remain in Iraq for years to nurture this embattled democracy–and not so incidentally to protect our own interests in the region. The good news is that Prime Minister Maliki, along with every other major figure in Iraqi politics, understands this. But they also understand that the people of Iraq are impatient for the return of full sovereignty and for the departure of foreign troops from their soil.
With provincial elections coming up in the fall, there is every incentive for Maliki and other Iraqi politicos to show they are not puppets of Uncle Sam. They are driving a hard bargain in the negotiations over a Status of Forces Agreement and a Strategic Framework Agreement that will set the future conditions of the U.S. military presence. And they are blustering about the need to withdraw U.S. troops-eventually. But note that, unlike Barack Obama, they are not attaching any timelines to this withdrawal. Certainly they are not calling for U.S. troops to be gone by 2010, a pledge that the Democratic candidate once made and hasn’t quite renounced.
The Maliki government undoubtedly realizes that to demand the immediate departure of U.S. forces would risk returning their country to the chaos that prevailed before the surge took effect last year. That is why it is not demanding any such thing-notwithstanding the (intentionally) misleading impression created by a few headlines. The danger is that rhetoric intended for domestic political consumption in Iraq will warp our own political discussion by providing fodder for those who, like Obama, are now citing the success of U.S. forces, as they once cited their failure, as evidence that we can pull out safely. The reality is that while limited troop withdrawals are now possible without compromising the gains of the surge, going too far too fast can still throw our growing success into doubt.