Letting the Iraqis take control
The Bush administration has long refused to set a timetable for withdrawal from Iraq. So why is it doing so now?
Monday August 25 2008 21:00 BST
When President George Bush and Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki signed a declaration of principles for a long-term relationship between the US and Iraq in late November 2007, the US envisioned that the agreement would enable it to establish an extensive strategic relationship with an Iraq grateful for the blood and treasure the US spilled in liberating and stabilising that country.
The Bush administration believed that this kind of relationship would make a free, democratic, pluralistic, federal and unified Iraq a strong and dependable ally in the American global war on terror. Furthermore, it would ensure that our Iraqi allies would allow the US to maintain a permanent military presence in their country, provide the bases and freedom of action for these combat forces to project American military power throughout the greater Middle East, and serve as a bulwark against Iranian expansion.
In other words, the US would be able to project power regionally, as do US forces in Germany, Japan and South Korea. The administration believed that achieving anything less would be an admission of defeat and would empower our enemies in the war on terror.
The Bush administration was so confident about achieving these results quickly that it agreed not to ask that the UN mandate be extended past December 31 of this year and stated that the negotiations would be wrapped up on July 31. Moreover, the president and his supporters said that, of course, if the Iraqis wanted us to leave, we would, while simultaneously branding those who wanted to set a timetable for withdrawal as defeatists who would undermine the gains made by the surge.
However, on Friday, US and Iraqi negotiators completed a draft accord that demands that the US remove its combat troops from Iraqi cities by June 2009 and from the rest of the country by December 31, 2011. While American officials argue that these timetables for withdrawing American combat forces depend on conditions on the ground, this decision will not be made by the US alone, but in concert with the Iraqis, who do not see it as conditional. While speaking with tribal leaders today, Maliki said that the US and Iraq have reached an agreement on a final date for withdrawal.
Moreover, the draft accord could be rejected by the Presidential Council (which consists of the prime minister, the president, two vice-presidents and the head of the Kurdish regional government), senior Iraqi security officials and the Iraqi parliament. Since most of these officials, including Maliki, and the Iraqi people wanted all American troops out by the end of 2010, it is not a foregone conclusion that all of these groups will accept the 2011 deadline.
How did the Bush administration so misjudge the situation? Why did it agree to a timetable for withdrawal after disparaging those who took such a position as defeatists? Some would argue that the security situation has improved so dramatically in the past 18 months that a timetable has become more realistic. But on the same day that the details of the pact were revealed, General David Petraeus, the commander of US forces in Iraq, said the gains are not durable and that the US role is not anywhere near finished. And, President Bush has said repeatedly that when it comes to withdrawing US troops, he will be guided by the US commanders on the ground in Iraq.
The reason that the Iraqis want a timetable is that there is a broad Iraqi political consensus in favour of a US commitment to withdraw its forces from the country, and, while there does not yet exist a consensus among Iraqis as to what the new Iraq will be, a broad consensus does exist that no genuine, sustainable Iraqi unity can develop while the government continues to be underwritten by a large foreign military presence.
It is important to remember that Maliki opposed the surge of US troops and the US agreement to train and pay the Sunni insurgents, which became known as the Anbar Awakening. In late 2006, as President Bush was deciding on the next steps in Iraq, Maliki urged him to redeploy American forces to the outskirts of Baghdad and allow Iraqi forces to take control of Baghdad. And he has not only refused to incorporate more than a token number of these 100,000 Sunni insurgents, now known as the Sons of Iraq, into the Iraqi Security Forces, but he is also already arresting hundreds of the members of the Awakening movement.
In dealing with Iraq, the Bush administration has consistently demonstrated that it has little understanding of Iraqi history and culture. Just as the Iraqis would not greet any foreign armies as liberators, they are not going to accept a permanent military presence on their soil. These negotiations show that the Iraqis want to take control of their own destiny. We should let them do so. It offers them and us the best, if not the only, chance of gaining something positive from the mess we created.