I got the opportunity to ask General Ray Ordierno a question at a press conference yesterday at the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad. Mainly: How many Americans will be left in Iraq after the Americans leave Iraq? (Call it the ‘Obama Withdrawal Paradox.’)
This is a topic I’ve been reporting on, and a subject Tom Ricks recently brought up on his blog, as well as in the pages of the NYT. I haven’t done the transcription yet–I am that lazy–but here’s a very rough paraphrased dialogue of what the exchange sounded like:
Me: Hi, um, General, uh, what kind of U.S. military presence will there be in Iraq after 2011?
General O: None, unless the Iraqis ask us, and then that would have to be negotiated with the Iraqi government.
The most interesting part was in the follow-up. He said there was an actual possibility of a “major” troop presence in Iraq after 2011. (Contingent on the Iraqis asking the Americans, as mentioned above.) Then I asked him to define “major”–did he mean 30,000 to 50,000 troops? General Ordierno said, no, he would define “major” as 2,000-3000 troops.
I was surprised by this answer–the 30,000 to 50,000 range is one I’ve heard batted around in discussion with military and foreign policy types, and if I were to have to make a guess, I would say that might be the size of our presence there for years to come. Or at least 15,000! But General Oridierno suggested my thinking might be way off, and another military official who I spoke to after the press conference told me that my thinking was, in fact, way off.
Are we buying it?
More reporting needed, to be sure. That being said, I spoke to Iraq’s Interior Minister on Sunday about the future U.S. troop presence. He said he was open to the idea, and the kind of things he said were needed would seem to require more than 2,000 to 3,000 troops. Also, Ayad Jamal Aldin, an Iraqi Shiite parliamentarian, made the point that Iraq won’t be able to defend itself against Iran by the end of 2011–an argument sure to get traction in foreign policy circles with an ideological bent that almost rhymes with “beingwrong.” Ayad said he thinks there should be more than just a token force of Americans here.
On a personal level, I guess I just have a hard time wrapping my head around it. Look at our troop numbers in South Korea, Germany, Japan, for instance. History suggests that when we arrive, bleed, and spend tax dollars, we like to stay awhile if we can.
In fact, I’d be pleased if there were only 2,000-3,000 troops in Iraq after 2011. This makes me doubly suspicious because the U.S. government almost never does anything foreign policy-wise that I agree with! But I have also picked up on a kind of subconscious nagging during my reporting that goes something like this: Did we really send the trillions of dollars and thousands of lives just to give up this prime real estate? Just asking…