America is approaching an important date for our military involvement in Iraq. By the end of next month, American combat forces are supposed to pull out of Iraqi cities. Little attention has been paid to this first withdrawal deadline in the American media, but as the date gets closer hopefully they'll realize what is about to happen. Because the next phase of America's military presence in Iraq could determine how fast President Obama can draw down the total number of American troops in the country.
As always in Iraq, things could go either way at this point. The chaos of sectarian violence could come back, or relative stability could give the central Iraqi government enough support to finally address the contentious issues they have been stalling on for years -- what to do with the oil revenue and the Kurdish situation in the north, among others.
But before drawing conclusions, we first must examine what the June 30 deadline means, and where the country currently stands.
The June 30 deadline
I examined the Status Of Forces Agreement (SOFA) in depth back in December when President George W. Bush signed it together with his counterpart Prime Minister Nouri Al Maliki of Iraq. The history of the struggle between Bush and Maliki over Article 24 of that agreement -- including the history of the rhetoric about a "timetable for withdrawal" -- raged throughout the 2008 election season in America. If your memory needs refreshing about how Maliki forced Bush to accept just such a timetable, you can read what I had to say about it back then.
But all we really need to review here is the actual language from the SOFA. From Article 24 (the entire document is available as a PDF file from the New York Times):
Recognizing the performance and increasing capacity of the Iraqi Security Forces, the assumption of full security responsibility by those Forces, and based upon the strong relationship between the Parties, an agreement on the following has been reached:
. . .
2. All United States combat forces shall withdraw from Iraqi cities, villages, and localities no later than the time at which Iraqi Security Forces assume full responsibility for security in an Iraqi province, provided that such withdrawal is completed no later than June 30, 2009.
3. United States combat forces withdrawn pursuant to paragraph 2 above shall be stationed in the agreed facilities and areas outside cities, villages, and localities to be designated by the JMOCC before the date established in paragraph 2 above.
. . .
5. The Parties agree to establish mechanisms and arrangements to reduce the number of the United States Forces during the periods of time that have been determined, and they shall agree on the locations where the United States Forces will be present.
There is also a lesser deadline for June 30, which requires the U.S. to hand back to Iraq ownership of all bases we have constructed, as well as all permanent structures and improvements contained on those bases. But the big deadline is the one in Article 24 -- our troops must be out of the cities.
What it will mean in reality is that all combat troops will be pulled back mostly to large bases on the outskirts of the cities. Combat troops will still have similar duties within the cities, but will (as I heard one military source quoted saying) "now have to commute to work." In other words, not a whole lot of difference than the way things are now.
Or is it? Part of the success of the "surge" was that American soldiers adopted more of a "take and hold" strategy within the cities, setting up many small outposts all over the cities, to have a local presence in all the neighborhoods. It can be argued how much this one tactic had to do with the lessening of violence, but this is the main tactic which will now be reversed, as all the soldiers manning such outposts will now return to bases on the edge of town.
This will lessen the "footprint" of the American military presence, but nobody knows exactly what this will mean for the security of the city residents. We are about to find out.
We will find out in the cities we are going to pull out of, that is. Because there is some possible wiggle room in the SOFA. While everyone expects American forces to pull out of Baghdad and most other Iraq cities and towns, there are still a few which even the Iraq government may not want to see us out of quite yet. Mosul, in particular. There are a few other hotspots in Iraq that may explode if we leave, as well.
Now, Maliki seemed to preclude this a few weeks ago, by stating that there will be no "extension" of American troops in Iraqi cities, and that he fully expected America to adhere strictly to the June 30 deadline.
But Maliki is a consummate politician, and his remarks were largely for the benefit of his own domestic audience, in anticipation of the national elections Iraq will be holding next year. Kicking the Americans out remains politically popular in Iraq, and Maliki is speaking to that. Both American and Iraqi analysts believe Maliki will hold firm on not allowing an "extension" of the deadline, but may quietly accept an "exemption" for certain cities. Splitting political hairs? Sure, but it's not like Americans don't play this same game at times (see: Bush attempting "an aspirational goal for a time horizon for withdrawal," instead of admitting he had agreed to a "timetable").
The situation in Iraq today
The security situation in Iraq today is a lot better than it used to be. Violence and deadly attacks and suicide bombings are down overall, although they have rather ominously ticked upwards in the past month or so. Meaning it's hard to predict what will happen next.
Politically, the unwillingness to tackle the enormous issues facing Maliki's government shows no signs of changing for the better in the near future. The status of the Kurds is still completely up in the air. The Kurds signed their own oil deals with outside companies, but it remains to be seen whether their oil will be allowed in the national pipelines, and even if it is, who will get the revenue from it. Oil revenues in general are still up in the air, and are being handled by what seems an almost ad-hoc basis -- patched together, but never truly agreed upon. Kurdish elections in Kirkuk still have not happened, and even counting who is a resident and voter (the precursor to elections) has still not been agreed upon.
The Sunni "Awakening" groups are now being paid by the Iraqi government (theoretically), and are (again, theoretically) being integrated into the national security services. In reality, some of the tribal leaders who participated in the Awakening Councils are being arrested by the Iraq government, to answer for crimes they (allegedly) committed before they were being paid by Americans (America gave the Awakening groups immunity when we signed them up, but the Iraqis insist that this was only immunity for attacks against Americans, and did not cover attacks against Iraqis). One of the leaders of an Awakening council (and his young son) were just killed by a bomb attached to the bottom of his car. And only a handful of the Awakening members have been allowed into the Iraqi Army or national police force. Which has led to rising fears from the Sunnis whether or not their rights as a minority in Iraq will actually be taken seriously by the Maliki central government.
But although the recent spate of bombings appears to be designed to exacerbate sectarian tensions, no wave of sectarian violence has followed. Yet, at least.
America pulling combat forces out of Iraqi cities is going to have multiple effects within the country. At this point, nobody can accurately predict what those effects are going to be with 100 percent reliability.
American troops could wind up doing exactly the same job (and being exactly as necessary or unnecessary as they were before), and the only change may be "commuting to work."
Shi'ite or Sunni groups could increase their attacks or counterattacks, leading back to widespread sectarian violence on a scale not seen in months.
The security situation may improve in some areas of Iraq, as the Iraq security forces prove to be capable of handling their own cities without American help.
Maliki's government could tackle the tough political questions facing them, and move towards a resolution of the problems within Iraq which the "surge" has not solved. Or, conversely, they may decide that "it's an election year," and continue to ignore the hard choices which ultimately must be made.
Localized flareups may occur (in Mosul or Diyala Province, for example) which force Maliki and President Obama to reluctantly admit that U.S. forces may be needed in some areas for a longer time than the June 30 deadline.
Or, if things go well for a few months, Obama may be able to begin actually withdrawing American forces out of Iraq on a quicker timetable. Soldiers may start returning home in large numbers this fall, if this best-scenario case plays out.
But while all of these are possible, it's hard to say which are probable. Saying "Iraq could go either way" is about the only thing that is certain at this point (as it has been at so many other points in the past).
We began the discussion of where we find ourselves now with semantics. What constituted a "timetable for withdrawal" and whether it was "waving the white flag of surrender" or not was a bitter political battle in America last year. In the end, America's politics didn't matter, as this deadline was forced on Bush by Maliki (who had Iraqi politics to worry about). Which puts us where we are now -- approaching the first milestone in the withdrawal timetable. And whether it is judged a success or not may also depend on semantics.
Because the debate after the withdrawal occurs is going to hinge around how America defines what is "an acceptible level of violence" in Iraq. If the violence is at an "acceptible" level in Iraq (in other words, not spectacular enough to be featured on American news programs on a nightly basis), then pulling combat troops out of the cities will be judged a success. If violence reaches such a peak that people begin using the term "civil war" again about Iraq, then President Obama will face much harder choices about what to do next.
Public perception of the success or failure of meeting the first milestone on the road to complete withdrawal from Iraq is going to play an important role in determining what happens next. The speed of withdrawing our troops over the next year or so may be heavily influenced by what happens in Iraq in the next two or three months. No matter what your stance is on how fast we should get out of Iraq, it will be worth paying attention to these next few months -- because what happens there could either tie Obama's hands and force him to order the troops to stay put, or even free him up to order the troops out faster than expected.
Cross-posted at The Huffington Post
-- Chris Weigant