|By: David Dayen|
US troops in Iraq have lowered to 77,500, their lowest number in years. By the end of August, the status of forces agreement negotiated by President Bush calls for the removal of all combat troops, with a residual force of about 50,000 left over until the end of 2011.
But as Juan Cole notes, a troop withdrawal will not signal a thriving democracy between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. In fact, continued struggles for power and sectarian strife reveal Iraq to look closer to a failed state than a democracy. Reuters reports on a firefight between Iraqi and Kurdish forces:
Iraqi soldiers and Kurdish peshmerga fighters exchanged punches and some gunfire along the volatile frontline between minority Kurds and Iraq’s majority Arabs, Iraqi officials said on Monday.
The confrontation in Qarah Tappah in Diyala province came on Sunday as U.S. Vice President Joe Biden held talks with Iraqi leaders in Baghdad, providing a reminder of the flashpoints that Iraq still has to resolve as U.S. troops prepare to withdraw.
U.S. military leaders fear that long-running disputes between Kurds and Iraqi Arabs over land, oil and power could lead to Iraq’s next major conflict as the sectarian bloodshed unleashed after the 2003 U.S.-led invasion recedes.
It’s amusing to place this in the context of the cries of war defenders that Kurdistan appreciated the US invasion, making the whole enterprise worth the cost.
The sectarian clashes have led Ray Odierno, the current US commander, to float the idea of UN peacekeepers after the American exit. That alone represents progress. Odierno has, at various points, suggested a slackening of the deadline for withdrawal, and larger residual forces. But this is something else entirely: UN peacekeepers, which would have a mandate to prevent civil and sectarian strife. Most countries in the world could get behind such a measure, particularly if it had a Muslim component. Most importantly, it would replace and not add to US forces, which truly are leaving. This was part of Biden’s message this past week, Cole notes:
Biden’s mission to Iraq over the Fourth of July weekend was intended to accomplish four things. He wanted to reassure Iraqi nationalists that the US is indeed ending its military occupation of the country on schedule. He wanted to reassure US clients in Iraq, such as the Kurds and some pro-American Arabs, that the US is not abandoning the country altogether, but will remain willing to help with its development. He wanted to deliver a strong message to Iraqi political factions that they must form a government soon or risk instability. And, he wanted to work against Iranian hegemony over Iraqi affairs as the US becomes less potent in Baghdad. He should have had a fourth goal, of Arab-Kurdish reconciliation before the US loses its leverage, but that issue appears not to have been central to this trip.
Biden wanted to reassure those nationalist Iraqis suspicious of US motives that Washington fully intended to abide by its time line for troop withdrawal– that is, the era of US military occupation of Iraq is drawing to a close. He said, “I hope you know we’ve kept our commitment so far, and on August 31st, we will change our military mission by drawing closer to all of you, not further apart.” There are now only 77,500 US troops in Iraq, the lowest number since the war was launched in 2003, and both Biden and Gen. Ray Odierno are affirming that the number will fall to 50,000 by September 1. That is, an average of a about 2,500 troops will be withdrawn every week until September. (And yes, the civilian contractors supporting the military will come out as well).
Under a McCain Presidency, you could absolutely envision him reacting to clashes between Iraqis and Kurds or other acts of violence by ripping up the status of forces agreement and digging in for a long-term commitment. This will not happen, because as unstable as Iraq remains, without a government since March, there’s a recognition that our presence does little to promote that stability. We can remain engaged in Iraq with respect to development and diplomacy without a large commitment of military troops there.
Furthermore, if preventing terrorist attacks is the major 21st-century national security goal, we’d be wise to increase the FBI counter-terrorism budget instead of bogging down in foreign occupations that do not serve that purpose. So-called “safe havens” in Western countries represent a far greater threat than those in Iraq or Afghanistan.