Navigating Tricky Timelines in Iraq

Obama Administration Should Continue Troop Withdrawal

Five weeks after Iraq held national elections, the country still doesn’t have a new government. Protracted negotiations over who will lead the country are still underway, even in the face of a recent spate of violence and terrorist attacks in the streets. The continued redeployment of U.S. troops from Iraq is still moving ahead as planned, and unless a major strategic event takes place—such as the invasion by a neighboring country or an internal military coup—the Obama administration should stick to the plan for withdrawal.

Negotiations among Iraq’s leaders to form the next government could take some time. Iraq’s political leaders took more than five months to form a government after the last national elections in December 2005. If Iraqi politicians follow that same pace, we may not see a new government in place until the fall since the summer months in Iraq have often slowed the pace of politics and the holy Muslim month of Ramadan falls in August this year.

Some analysts have argued that moving U.S. troops out in this sensitive period is unwise. The current plan would bring U.S. troop levels down to about 50,000 by this fall. Yet many of those making the case for staying longer have been wrong about Iraq before. Tom Ricks, a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security who covered the war for The Washington Post, made the case for extending the U.S. troop presence beyond the current timeline earlier this year. Ken Pollack at Brookings last month wrote that one problem President Obama faces is a domestic political base that is “fanatical that he keep to this drawdown schedule regardless of what happens in Iraq.” These two analysts, as well as many others who make the case for U.S. troops staying in longer, fail to recognize two key things.

First, if anyone is “fanatical” about adhering to the troop withdrawal timelines, it is the Iraqis. Iraq’s leaders demanded a clear timeline for troop withdrawals in its negotiations with the Bush administration, and there are strong political actors in Iraq who are demanding an end to what they view as an “occupation.” Just look at the recent demonstration in the southern Iraqi city of Najaf—the demonstrators marked the seventh anniversary of the fall of Baghdad by calling for the “occupation” to end.

Second, many Iraqis do not view U.S. troops favorably. A faulty assumption that many analysts make is to overstate how essential the Iraqi public actually views the U.S. troop presence to be. U.S. troops have for the most part been outside of Iraq’s urban areas since last summer except in certain circumstances. And this is the biggest factor leading to the minimal U.S. troop losses and injuries in Iraq last year.

As USA Today reported last year, U.S. troops in Iraq now have time on their hands to take salsa dancing and yoga classes. The U.S. troops that remain behind are playing a support and training role for Iraqi security forces, and that is all part of the plan for a phased strategic redeployment of U.S. troops according to a specific timeline, which I argued for as far back as 2005. At lot has happened since 2005, of course, but one fundamental has remained strong—Iraqis want to regain control over their country, and the United States should not stand in their way.

That’s why it is wise for the Obama administration to continue to move forward as planned with the troop withdrawal schedule, barring an unforeseen strategic complication such as a conventional military invasion from one of Iraq’s neighbors, which seems less likely, or an event such as an internal military coup, which has higher odds than a regional war. Iraq’s next government may ultimately seek to modify the timeline set out in the security agreement to have all U.S. troops out of Iraq by the end of 2011, and the Obama administration should consider such a request—if it comes—in the context of the full range of global security challenges America faces.

Not moving forward with the planned troop drawdown because of protracted political negotiations in Baghdad makes little strategic sense for broader U.S. national security. A delay in drawing down troops from Iraq puts more strain on a U.S. military working hard to implement a troop increase in Afghanistan. The United States should carefully monitor the situation inside Iraq as it continues the troop withdrawal outlined by the Bush administration, but it would be unwise to look for excuses to stay longer than Iraqis want.

For more information on the Iraq election, see: