The great Tom Ricks has an Op-Ed in the NYT that’s worth reading. Mainly, he suggests that if the political instability and violence continues in Iraq(almost certain) Obama should keep between 30-50,000 U.S. troops there for many years to come.
In one sense, it’s a bit of a straw man argument. I’ve been reporting on this for months, and almost no one thinks that the U.S. will ever get down to zero troops in Iraq by the end of 2011, the date called for in the Status of Forces agreement. That was never really in the cards. Already, U.S. and Iraqi officials are thinking about what kind of military presence the U.S. will have there after 2011. Okay, there will be no “combat troops,” just troops, and they won’t be in the Iraq of the Iraq War and Operation Iraqi Freedom–they’ll just be hanging out in the new, post-war, peaceful Iraq. In other words, despite Obama’s promises to bring everyone home, there already was a very high likelihood of having troops in Iraq for years to come. It’s just that we (and by this I mean the USG) were planning not to count these troops as troops.
But Ricks is calling for more than just a U.S. force garrisoned in Iraq, it seems. This is a debate worth having, and I applaud him for getting it out in the open. It appears he wants the U.S. to keep up a more active role in maintaining the shaky semi-stability in the country. This goes along with a school of thought in Beltway foreign policy circles–while the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad really wants to transition to a more normal relationship with Iraq, other think tankers and the like are advocating essentially for the State Department to start doing what the military had been doing(and using the military to do so.)
The central argument for staying longer in Iraq is the fear that by leaving “everything”–ie, gains in security that the U.S. helped produce–will unravel. This might remind you of the central argument for the Surge, which was that everything was unraveled, and if we left, things would unravel further. Critics of the Surge pointed out–and it turns out correctly!–that by sending thousands of more troops rather than continuing to withdraw them, we’d end up in Iraq forever and ever. There’s never a good time to withdraw, or leave.
There are top people in the U.S. military who really don’t want to let go of Iraq. Though the rhetoric is that Iraq is a “sovereign” country, there’s a a real fear that once the paternal hand of the Americans are off the shoulders of the Iraqis (remember the training wheels metaphor?) things could get really, really, bad again. That would mean that the U.S. military’s sacrifices had been a waste, and, even worse, those damn critics could make the argument that we didn’t “win” in Iraq.
Ricks ends on the popular Kilcullen quote, which Obama picked up as a talking point during his presidential campaign. Ricks writes: “Yet, to echo the counterinsurgency expert David Kilcullen, just because you invade a country stupidly doesn’t mean you should leave it stupidly.” So, if you never leave, there’s no worry of acting stupid. Except that you never leave. Which seems kind of stupid, too.