In a neat juxtaposition, the front page of the New York Times today carries an article outlining a draft agreement on the removal of U.S. combat forces from Iraq in 2011 right below another article which shows why it’s dangerous to rush for the
exits. This story focuses on tensions between the Shiite-dominated government of Iraq and the largely Sunni members of the Awakening, many of them former insurgents who have allied with U.S. and Iraqi forces. The Iraqi government, it seems, is targeting some Awakening members for arrest while dragging its feet on hiring others into the Iraqi Security Forces (as Peter has noted).
The merits of the individual cases are hard to sort out, and in any case don’t matter that much. The broader point is to highlight how fragile recent gains have been and how easily they could evaporate if U.S. forces leave too soon. (A point that General David Petraeus, now departing Iraq after the most successful turnaround by any American general since Matthew Ridgeway in Korea, makes in this interview.) At the moment there is still great distrust between different ethno-sectarian groups in Iraq, and, aside from the role they still play in patrolling the streets, U.S. troops perform another invaluable function: Much as in Bosnia and Kosovo, they serve as an impartial peacekeeping force that can be trusted by all sides even when they don’t trust one another.
The accord on pulling out U.S. forces, if implemented along the lines described by the New York Times, would probably not jeopardize the progress that has been made. If the reports in the Times and other MSM outlets are accurate, the U.S. and Iraq have agreed that U.S. combat forces would pull out of Iraq’s urban areas by next summer and out of Iraq altogether by the end of 2011—but only if the current rate of progress continues. That’s a notable difference from Barack Obama’s 16-month withdrawal plan which would pull all U.S. combat forces out by mid-2010 regardless of conditions on the ground. Of course both the draft U.S.-Iraq document and the Obama plan leave a big loophole: they only apply to combat forces, allowing the possibility that U.S. advisory and support forces in substantial numbers could remain in Iraq for many years to come. (The line between combat and support forces isn’t hard and fast; it might be possible to stay within the letter of an accord by changing the name of a brigade from Brigade Combat Team to Brigade Training Team.)
I hope it will be politically possible, both in the U.S. and Iraq, to keep a substantial force in Iraq beyond 2011—not, I hope, to engage in combat operations, and certainly not to suffer casualties, but simply to provide reassurance of American commitment to Iraqi democracy and to prevent any ethno-sectarian group from oppressing the others. Or even to guard against a military coup. In a country as embattled as Iraq, any number of things can go wrong. Only an American commitment can safeguard this fragile democracy and thereby safeguard our own interests in the region.