The debate over withdrawal of American forces from Iraq has effectively ended: Troops will begin withdrawing in early 2009. The withdrawal will be complete somewhere between mid-2010 and the end of 2011, in accord with the expressed determination of the incoming Obama administration and the wishes of the Iraqi government. The pace of withdrawal will depend on local security conditions. If the security situation continues to improve, the withdrawal may accelerate. However, if the security situation sharply deteriorates, the withdrawal is unlikely to be reversed. There will be no second surge.
What is not yet entirely clear is what type of residual American force may remain in Iraq. President-elect Obama’s commitment to withdrawal in 16 months refers only to American combat forces, which constitute only about a third of the total force, although presumably some support troops will come home with them. That still leaves a sizeable American military contingent of as many as 70,000 or 90,000 troops remaining at bases in Iraq. The Status of Forces Agreement between Iraq and the United States is appropriately blurry on this point.
The residual forces could continue to train and support Iraqi forces, in accord with our current long-term strategy, but by their very presence they would bolster democratic institutions. They also might protect Sunni and Kurd minorities, protect Iraq and its Arab neighbors against possible Iranian aggression, and protect Iraq’s neighbors against any potential future Iraqi aggression.
Their presence would signal America’s commitment to keep vital sea lanes open. If Iraq goes nuclear (or ambiguously edges closer and closer to nuclear weapons status without announcing or testing a nuclear bomb), a nearby American presence might help discourage threatened Arab governments from starting their own nuclear programs.
But anything less than full withdrawal (except for a tiny training contingent) may not satisfy Americans who want out of Iraq, or the Iraqis, who may regard any American presence as a limitation to their sovereignty. Moreover, the violence in Iraq, although it has declined, will almost certainly continue. Americans will remain targets of al Qa’ida-affiliated terrorists. And if antagonisms between the United States and Iran are not reduced, Americans in Iraq could be targets of Iranian-backed terrorists. It ain’t over yet.
Brian Michael Jenkins is a Senior Advisor to the President of the RAND Corporation.
This commentary originally appeared on NationalJournal.com on December 16, 2008.