US withdrawal from Iraq - Irish Times Editorial - 16 August 2010

US withdrawal from Iraq

BY THE end of this month the United States is pledged to withdraw its combat troops from Iraq and by the end of next year its status of forces agreement with that state expires. President Obama says these commitments mark the end of the combat mission in Iraq as promised by him and on his timetable. There is a lot of politics in this statement ahead of the US midterm elections in November. In fact six brigades – 50,000 troops – will remain in 94 bases in September even when 14,000 others pull out. And Iraq’s most senior military commander once again last week insisted that the country’s armed forces will not be ready to take charge until 2020.

Lieut Gen Babaker Zebari said “the problem will start after 2011 . . . If I were asked about the withdrawal, I would say to the politicians: the US army must stay until the Iraqi army is fully ready in 2020.” He does not envisage a large force but troops in three or four bases. He is pushing an open door with the US military, who support him on this. They do not believe the Iraq armed forces are capable of withstanding an external attack, or of preventing any conflict with Kurdish forces in the north of the country. Al-Qaeda and other groups unreconciled to the new Iraqi regime are stepping attacks, making July’s 525 killings the highest in two years. Anyone looking at the size of the existing US bases and diplomatic facilities and those under construction, together with tens of thousands of contractors, might conclude that withdrawal is likely to be more symbolic than real.

There is undoubtedly political pressure for it to happen, in the US, but also in Iraq. Mr Obama says Iraq was a war of choice based on false premises, in contrast to the necessary one in Afghanistan. His political credibility is at stake in running down the US presence and securing an orderly withdrawal. Iraqi politicians say this should happen, confirming their nationalist opposition to US occupation. They have a mandate for it from this year’s United Nations-supervised general elections.

But the close result and continuing deep-seated rivalries since April have led to a complete political impasse in forming a new government. US efforts to broker a power-sharing compromise between the outgoing Shia prime minister Nouri al-Maliki and his secular Sunni opponent Iyad Allawi have failed. This does not augur well for those who wish to paint a picture of orderly withdrawal from a well-functioning post-occupation polity.

Having invaded Iraq, destroyed its regime and undermined its state’s ability to provide basic services such as public security, health, welfare and education to its citizens the US has found it extraordinarily difficult to reconstruct them. No matter what attitude is taken to the invasion, there is a responsibility on the occupying power to ensure the successor state is capable of surviving. That means political expediencies are likely to yield to security ones in setting precise timetables for the US pullout. Much more political and diplomatic effort is required to ensure Iraq can eventually stand on its own feet.