The Possibility of US Troops Remaining In Iraq Past 2011 Grows

In February 2009, President Obama flew to Camp Lejeune , a US Marine base in North Carolina, to fulfill a campaign promise, indeed the one campaign promise that had galvanized critical support for his candidacy early in 2007 when he remained largely an unknown first term US Senator. There amidst a crowd of some 6,000 Marines, the President delivered a passionate speech outlining the end of combat operations in Iraq, a war that at point had lasted over six years claiming 4,425 Americans dead, costing well over a trillion dollars while laying waste to Iraq plunging that country into a bitter sectarian civil war from which it has yet to fully emerge. Then he intoned, "Let me say this as plainly as I can - by August 31 2010, our combat mission in Iraq will end."

Of the 142,000 US troops then in Iraq, some 92,000 were withdrawn by August 2010. The mission at that point changed, from combat to one that dealt primarily with training Iraqi forces, supporting the Iraqi government and engaging in counter-terrorism. Even if some 50,000 US troops did remain past the end of combat operations in August 2010, they would be withdrawn in toto by the end of 2011. The President's words were as clear and crisp as the weather on that February day: "Under the status of forces agreement with the Iraqi government, I intend to remove all US troops from Iraq by the end of 2011. We will complete this transition to Iraqi responsibility, and we will bring our troops home with the honour that they have earned."

That was then, this is now. There are currently some 47,000 US troops still stationed in Iraq, there ostensibly to train Iraqi forces and to engage in counter-terrorism. This week, US Defense Secretary Robert Gates, making his 13th and likely his last trip to Iraq, mentioned the possibility of an US presence in Iraq beyond the end of the year. From the Army Times:

U.S. officials, including at least some top military officers, believe that Iraq has significant gaps in its defense capabilities, including a lack of air power to defend its own skies. They see this as posing a risk, in the absence of U.S. forces, that the political and security gains that have been achieved over the past eight years could unravel.

In remarks to U.S. troops at Camp Marez, Gates said that in his talks with a full range of top Iraqi officials they had indicated an interest in an extended U.S. troop presence.

“We’re open to that,” Gates said. “It obviously would be a presence that’s a fraction of the size that we have here now.”

He mentioned no numbers, but there currently are about 47,000 U.S. troops in the country.

One soldier asked Gates how much longer the U.S. would stay if asked.

“That would be part of any negotiation,” Gates replied.

He said it could be for “a finite period of time” at an agreed number of troops, or it could be a phased drawdown for two or three years beyond 2011.

Or, he said, it could be a long-term U.S. role to advise and assist Iraqi security forces “that just becomes part of the regular military-to-military relationship.” That appeared to be a reference to arrangements such as those that have existed in Japan and Korea for more than 50 years, in which U.S. troops are based there to train with local forces and act as a regional deterrent.

Speaking on behalf of the Obama administration, Secretary Gates said the United States would keep troops in Iraq beyond December 31 if the Iraqi government wanted them, but the Iraqis need to decide "pretty quickly" in order for the Pentagon to accommodate an extension of the final withdrawal date. The takeaway from Secretary Gates' comments is that the Administration is laying the groundwork for a long-term, permanent presence in Iraq akin to our presence in Japan, Korea and Germany.

Certainly, there are segments of the Iraqi population, such as the Kurds in the north, that would welcome a continued American presence in Iraq. On the other hand, there are segments that remain diametrically opposed to any continued US military presence in Iraq. According to Al-Jazeera, Moqtada al Sadr, the prominent Iraqi Shia cleric who recently returned to the country from exile in Iran, has threatened to revive his Mehdi Army and relaunch armed resistance against continued US presence in the country. Al Jazeera correspondent Jane Arraf, reporting from Baghdad, said that this time Sadr had not only warned against a continuing US troop presence but also against the contractors who prevent ordinary Iraqis from gainful employment.

Here at home, it is hard to figure how the news of an extended stay in Iraq a la Japan or a la Germany is going to play. Certainly the war hawks like Senator McCain, Senator Graham and Senator Lieberman are bound to be pleased but the move is unlikely to win President Obama any votes in his re-election campaign. In fact, it is likely to further alienate his already rather disenchanted base even if news like this is largely confined to back pages of American journalism.

One more point really needs to be made. Iraq in 2011 is not Japan or Germany 1946 nor is it Korea 1953. Iraq is Iraq, a country that remains a match stick away from going up in flames. While we certainly owe the Iraqis much, having torn their country asunder, the idea that we can garrison the globe ad infinitum is a non-starter.  In this recent budget showdown, Democrats fought for and won a $2 billion cut from the Department of Defense, knocking the military appropriation for the rest of the year down to $513 billion. Meanwhile, the Republicans won over $36 billion cuts to social programs and infrastructure plans. At some point, we on the left must engage in a full throttle defense of domestic priorities and cast aside some of our global ambitions of an empire without end.

Secretary Gates Aims to Cut the Growth of Military Spending

Secretary of Defense Robert Gates announced on Monday deep cuts to the rate of growth of military spending as the nation enters a period of belt tightening. The cuts include closing a major military command, restricting the use of outside contractors and reducing the number of generals and admirals across the armed forces and are aimed at offsetting the growth of military spending.

From the New York Times:

Mr. Gates said he had ordered a 10 percent reduction in spending on contractors who provide support services to the military, including intelligence-related contracts, and placed a freeze on the number of workers in the office of the secretary of defense, other Pentagon supervisory agencies and the headquarters of the military’s combat commands.

Mr. Gates, who has been promising to cut the Pentagon’s day-to-day budget in order to meet the continuing costs of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan in the face of tight fiscal constraints and mounting domestic spending, placed a cap on the number of generals, admirals and senior civilian positions across the Pentagon and the military. He said the Defense Department should try to cut at least 50 general and admiral posts and 150 senior civilian positions over the next two years.

The most pronounced change, in terms of the number of jobs to be eliminated in one blow, was his plan to close the military’s Joint Forces Command, in Norfolk, Va.

The command includes about 2,800 military and civilian positions supported by 3,000 contractors at an annual cost of $240 million. Its responsibilities, which includes programs to force the armed services to work together on the battlefield, will be reassigned, mostly to the military’s Joint Staff.

While large headquarters have been combined and realigned over the years, Pentagon officials could not recall a time in recent history when a major command was shut down and vanished off the books.

Still the cuts outlined by Secretary Gates do not represent an actual decline in year-to-year total spending. The Pentagon’s budget will keep growing in the long run at 1 percent a year after inflation, plus the costs of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, which are not included.

Mr. Gates is calling for the Pentagon’s budget to keep growing in the long run at 1 percent a year after inflation, plus the costs of the war. It has averaged an inflation-adjusted growth rate of 7 percent a year over the last decade (nearly 12 percent a year without adjusting for inflation), including the costs of the wars. So far, Mr. Obama has asked Congress for an increase in total spending next year of 2.2 percent, to $708 billion — 6.1 percent higher than the peak under the Bush administration.

Mr. Gates is arguing that if the Pentagon budget is allowed to keep growing by 1 percent a year, he can find 2 percent or 3 percent in savings in the department’s bureaucracy to reinvest in the military — and that will be sufficient to meet national security needs. In one of the paradoxes of Washington budget battles, Mr. Gates, even as he tries to forestall deeper cuts, is trying to kill weapons programs he says the military does not need over the objections of members of Congress who want to protect jobs.

Over all, Mr. Gates has ordered the armed services and the Pentagon’s agencies to find $100 billion in spending cuts and efficiencies over the next five years: $7 billion for 2012, growing to $37 billion annually by 2016.

At the moment, the administration projects that the Pentagon’s base budget and the extra war spending will peak at $708 billion in the coming fiscal year, though analysts say it is likely that the Pentagon will then need at least $30 billion more in supplemental war financing.

Any takers on a bet that Charles Krauthammer and William Kristol will call these proposals irresponsible?

Just to throw a few hard numbers at you but US military spending now accounts for 4.7 percent of US GDP. During the Bush Administration, US military spending average 3.5 percent of GDP. Before the 9/11 attacks, US military spending was just 2.9 percent of GDP. Military spending last topped 4 percent of GDP in 1991 during the First Gulf War and in the closing hours of the Cold War.

The United States accounts for 47 percent of the world’s total military spending, however the United States share of the global GDP is about 21 percent. Still it is likely that conservative analysts from the Heritage Foundation will rant and rave about Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid consuming 8.7 percent of GDP.

Tomorrow's War

Quoting an unnamed Administration official, Senator Joe Lieberman of Connecticut said this on Fox News Sunday, "Iraq was yesterday's war, Afghanistan is today's war. If we don't act preemptively, Yemen will be tomorrow's war." Endorsing that view, Senator Lieberman went on to note that unless we act preemptively now the US is likely to find itself in a war in the southwest corner of the Arabian peninsula. Senator Lieberman argued that the US will have to take an active approach in Yemen after multiple recent terrorist attacks were linked back to the small, deeply divided and desperately poor nation.

From The Hill:

Lieberman, who is known to be hawkish on security issues, said that Yemen needs to be a focal point because two recent attacks were linked back to a growing al-Qaeda presence there.

Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan -- the Army officer who killed 13 people in a shooting rampage at Fort Hood in November -- was linked to Anwar al-Awlaki, a radical Muslim cleric now based in Yemen.

The senator said that Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the 23-year-old Nigerian accused of attempting to set off a plastic-explosive device aboard a Northwest Airlines flight from Amsterdam to Detroit on Friday, "reached out to Yemen" but was "not sure" if he contacted al-Awlaki. Abdulmutallab reportedly told authorities he traveled to Yemen and met al-Qaida figures there.

The U.S. earlier this month launched cruise missiles at two al-Qaeda targets in Yemen. The attacks represented a major escalation of U.S. efforts against al-Qaeda in Yemen.

One of the reasons I like Robert Gates, the Secretary of Defense, is that for quite some time now almost alone in the Washington wilderness he has been talking about the threat emanating from failed states. "In recent years, the lines separating war, peace, diplomacy and development have become more blurred and no longer fit the neat organizational charts of the 20th century," Secretary Gates noted in a speech in Washington in July 2008 when he was still serving in the Bush Administration.

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Game Changing Shifts in the Momentum in Afghanistan

On the situation in Afghanistan, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mike Mullen thinks the next 12 to 18 months will really tell the tale. And in comments to a Senate Appropriations panel, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates noted that steps taken over the next 18 months to defeat the Taliban militias will ultimately decide whether the war in Afghanistan is being won or lost though the blunt but cautious Secretary went on to add that by this he does not mean the Afghan campaign would achieve success in that time, but rather that officials hoped to "see a shift in the momentum" by then. He might have a chat with Col. George Amland who spoke to reporters at Camp Leatherneck, a rapidly expanding base now home to around 7,000 U.S. Marines preparing to push deeper into Helmand province, telling them the arrival of new troops in Afghanistan is a "game changer".

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The Afghan Endgame Involves Political Reconciliation

Secretary of Defense Robert Gates gave an interview yesterday to Tavis Smiley of PBS (watch it at PBS) that was refreshingly candid and frank. While the interview was wide-ranging covering topics from Iraq to re-enlistment quotas to intelligence gathering to Iran, the Secretary's comments on Afghanistan deserve greater attention. Here's the relevant part of the transcript:

Tavis: You mentioned Afghanistan earlier, Mr. Secretary. Let's travel there quickly. I don't mean to make you political in this sense. We all know and acknowledge you were not part of the Obama campaign. President Obama, once elected, asked you to stay on and you agreed to serve and I'm honored to have you on the program.

That said, there were expectations that many Americans had about how he was going to handle Iraq, how he was going to handle Afghanistan. Many Americans who voted for him didn't think that meant sending 17,000 more troops to Afghanistan. How should the American public contextualize that decision?

Gates: I think that what the president has decided is really quite consistent with what he said during the campaign. I think that he made clear during the campaign he intended to send more troops to Afghanistan. I think that he made clear he was going to draw down our troops in Iraq. He had a 16-month period that he talked about in Iraq. He also said he would listen to the ground commanders and it was based on that dialogue that he agreed to 19 months instead of 16.

So I think that he has kept the commitments that he made during the campaign, but he has shown some flexibility in terms of the realities on the ground, I think, in both places.

Tavis: What does it mean that everybody in authority in Washington - in the White House, in Congress, in the Defense Department - everybody agrees that we are simply not winning in Afghanistan. What does that mean?

Gates: Well first of all, I think the situation is more complex than that in the sense that there are areas of the country, particularly in the north and in the west, that are relatively peaceful and where there has not been a significant spike in violence.

The eastern area is not in bad shape. The biggest problem that we face is in the southern part of Afghanistan, which is sort of the Taliban homeland. So we have a different situation in different parts of the country, and it's in - I would say it's in the south where we would all agree we're not winning, and that's one of the reasons why we're going to increase our troop presence there as well as the civilian presence.

Tavis: The White House has floated Mr. Obama - President Obama himself, Vice President Biden. They have floated this notion of perhaps working with the Taliban, trying to get those who are disaffected, those who have a different point of view after all this time, working with those members - certain members of the Taliban to help us fight Al Qaeda. Your thoughts on that?

Gates: I think almost all insurgencies, in the end game, involve political reconciliation. The issue is it needs to be on the terms of the government of Afghanistan. This is a matter mainly between the government of Afghanistan and the Taliban.

There are elements of the Taliban that are absolutely irreconcilable and frankly will have to be killed. But there may be other elements that are willing to - and maybe a majority who are in it who do it because it's a job, because they get paid. There may be some who do it for other reasons, but I think there is the potential for reconciliation.

I think the key is it must be organized between the government of Afghanistan and the Taliban, and I believe it needs to be on the terms set by the government of Afghanistan.

Tavis: What would be the incentive for those who chose to fight with us against Al Qaeda, what would the incentive be?

Gates: Well, to bring peace to the villages and towns and countryside of their homeland, of Afghanistan. There's some evidence that a fair number of the Taliban are not committed Islamists or extremists, and so they may be able to be wooed away.

Secretary Gates, I think, accurately clarified the 'not winning in Afghanistan' remarks. Vice President Biden caused a stir earlier this week in Brussels when he replied to a question imprecisely, "We are not now winning the war, but the war is far from lost." Secretary Gates was more precise. The problem is clearly most acute in the southern provinces and to a significant degree in the eastern provinces. These areas, of course, are the ones that ring Pakistan and that form Pashtunistan. Still, to win in Afghanistan does mean pacifying the Pashtun homeland and just as important, if not more, solving Pakistan. The Vice President, however, might have added the war is also far from won.

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