What does President-elect Barack Obama mean when he says he will end the war in Iraq?
For all practical purposes, the nearly 140,000 U.S. troops in Iraq today perform something closer to a peace-keeping mission than an all-out war with major combat operations. Indeed, it has been a while since we’ve heard of a substantial mobilization of forces inside the country, while casualties on the American side have declined to the lowest levels since the war started.
With Al-Qaeda in Iraq largely incapacitated, and the pro-Iranian militias, such as the Mahdi Army, all but contained, the so-called war in Iraq appears to be morphing into an extension of the broader war on terror. So when Obama says he plans to end the war, the question is, first: whom does he identify as “the enemy” in the soon-to-end war? And second: is he willing to end this war even if “the enemy” decides to resume fighting and the country veers, again, toward civil war?
Sources say the SOFA is now backed by 143 members of parliament in the 275-member house, with 41 Sunni members of the “Accord Front” still undecided.
So far, the President-elect has made no substantive comment on the Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA), which Iraq’s cabinet approved last Sunday, and which is now undergoing a third reading in parliament. Although the SOFA timetable differs very little from the plan Obama proposed during the campaign, he has yet to say he would honor the agreement. So much for campaign slogans.
To be fair, however, circumstances on the ground have prompted both Obama and Bush to adjust their withdrawal plans to the point where there is little difference between the two. So Obama may be content to let the Bush administration make a deal. The notion of leaving Defense Secretary Robert Gates in his job under a new administration, for a few months at the very least, suggests that Obama has no intention to rock the boat on the Bush plan.
In all likelihood, the Iraqi parliament will pass the agreement with a comfortable majority by next week, despite the opposition of Iranian-backed elements such as Shiite cleric Muqtada Al-Sadr. According to well-informed Iraqi sources, the SOFA is now backed by 143 members of parliament -- including 87 members of the government’s coalition and 56 Kurdish members—and opposed by 106 members in the 275-member house. The 41 Sunni members of the “Accord Front” have not yet decided either way.
Needless to say, “ending the war” does not end U.S. military engagement in Iraq under either Bush’s or Obama’s plan. Both project a “residual force” of 40,000 to 55,000 U.S. troops that would remain past a pullout of combat brigades that could occur in 2010 at the earliest, or 2011 at the latest, whether or not permanent military bases are established in Iraq.
Neither plan specifies how long these residual forces would remain by mutual agreement between Washington and Baghdad. Can such a massive presence be regarded as an “end” to the war? And will an Obama administration slow the withdrawal if the Iranians resume their attacks through their proxy militias, or will he leave the Iraqis to their fate?
Starting a war is always easier than ending it. And as George Orwell put it, “the quickest way of ending a war is to lose it.” The key question now is whether the Obama administration is willing to lose a proxy war with Iran in order to declare peace in Iraq. An emboldened Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Maliki now calls the SOFA a “withdrawal agreement” to end the U.S. occupation, a language similar to what we often hear from Iran.
We will not know the answer to these questions until the president elect picks a Secretary of State, who can then spell out the road ahead. During the presidential campaign, Hillary Clinton’s position was essentially the same as Obama’s on ending the war. So she is not likely to change course on the basics of the SOFA if she becomes Secretary of State unless there is some terrible breakdown of security in Iraq.
Bound by national security concerns, the opinion of commanders on the ground, and the preservation of vital U.S. strategic interests in the region, the new administration must be ready to change direction depending on what actually happens next in Iraq. Iran remains a huge factor, so outcome of the current standoff with Tehran may alter U.S. policy in Baghdad.
Colin Powell argued that to win a war you need to go in with overwhelming force. But Donald Rumsfeld’s view was that you go with the army you have. Adequate troop levels were never deployed to either Iraq or Afghanistan, where the situation is deteriorating by the day. And because of that, we are now where we are.
Bush may have made the SOFA, but Obama will have to sleep on it.
Salameh Nematt is the International Editor of The Daily Beast. He is the former Washington Bureau Chief for Al Hayat International Arab daily, where he reported on U.S. foreign policy, the war in Iraq, and the U.S. drive for democratization in the broader Middle East. He has also written extensively on regional and global energy issues and their political implications.