“The last American soldiers will cross the border out of Iraq with their heads held high, proud of their success and knowing that the American people stand united in their support for our troops,” the president said. “That is how America’s military efforts in Iraq will end.”
I’m not sure how much credit the president deserves for this decision. In recent years he had taken credit for the withdrawal although it proceeded at the pace set forward in the Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) signed by President Bush and Prime Minister Maliki, not at Obama’s pace. “But the agreement was reached with a wink-and-nod understanding that a politically palatable way would be found to keep a substantial American troop presence in the country after that date.”
Fast forward to 2011, and there is not a politically palatable reason to keep troops there because there is little reason to keep troops there at all. If the need for support increases, a new agreement can be debated. Options are now on the table, as they should be.
Possibilities being discussed are for some troops to come back in 2012, an option preferred by some Iraqi politicians who want to claim credit for ending what many here still call an occupation, even though legally it ended years ago. Other scenarios being discussed include training in the United States, in a neighboring country such as Kuwait or having some American troops come back under the auspices of NATO.
In the meantime, an agreement is in place to keep more than 150 Defense Department personnel, both military and civilian, in Iraq to secure the American Embassy, manage military sales and carry out standard duties of a defense attaché and office of security cooperation. They will operate under the authority of the State Department, which will be taking the leading role in Iraq.
American officials continued to express concern about gaps in Iraq’s security capabilities to withstand what they view as continued threats of sectarian violence and Iran’s malign influence. But if those gaps are to be addressed by American military assistance, it will have to be in a different form than imagined during negotiations that faltered, and now have failed.
Overall, it’s a good thing our troops are finally coming home.