12/23/2011 by Richard Weitz
Recently, Vice President Joe Biden made his seventh visit to Iraq as vice president and 16th visit overall. Biden spent two days in Baghdad meeting with Iraqi political leaders, then he travelled to Erbil, capital of the Kurdistan Regional Government, to meet with President Massoud Barzani. Biden also received a briefing from the American ambassador, James F. Jeffrey, and the senior U.S. military commander in Iraq, Gen. Lloyd J. Austin III.
Biden gave an emotional address to the U.S. troops at one of the handful of remaining U.S. military bases in Iraq. . Hundreds of U.S. soldiers are departing each day; less than a thousand will remain at the end of 2011.Iraqi leaders used this departure ceremony as an occasion to thank the American troops for all their service and sacrifice for their country. Almost 4,500 American service members lost their lives in the Iraq war, while more than 30,000 were injured.
One of Biden’s main goals was to reassure nervous Iraqis about their security as the remaining U.S. combat units leave. The last few weeks have seen a series of suicide bombings in the Iraqi capital–including the first one inside the fortified green zone, the site of most government offices and foreign embassies since 2007– as well as renewed Turkish military action in northern Iraq.
Biden argued that the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) were well trained and prepared to resist threats while the country’s newly “inclusive political culture will be the ultimate guarantor … of this stability.” He also saw his visit as marking the transformation of the Washington-Baghdad relationship from an exclusively military one to a more normal and broader partnership: “our relationship, borne on the battlefield and long defined by the imperative of security alone, is now giving way to a new, more normal partnership between sovereign nations seeking to build a future together.”
Bilateral relations this year has been dominated by discussions regarding how many if any, U.S. combat troops would remain in Iraq in 2012 and under what conditions. The early expectations on the American side were that some 20,000 to 30,000 U.S. combat troops should remain in Iraq after 2011. By the summer of that year, the White House had agreed to a scaled-down DOD recommendation that as many as 10,000 troops should stay in Iraq in 2012. By the fall of 2011, the Obama administration was trying to keep only a few thousand troops in Iraq in 2012. Many military analysts and members of Congress worried that such a small figure would prove counterproductive, generating Iraqi popular opposition without contributing much by way of security. But this problem was resolved when the parties gave up trying to achieve any formal SOFA extension.
The ”Agreement Between the United States of America and the Republic of Iraq On the Withdrawal of United States Forces from Iraq and the Organization of Their Activities during Their Temporary Presence in Iraq” (also known as the Status of Forces Agreement or SOFA), which was signed in late 2008 and entered into force at the beginning of 2009, has governed the U.S. military presence in Iraq. The SOFA granted American troops their legal rights and prerogatives when under Iraqi jurisdiction. It mandated that all the remaining forces assigned to United States Forces-Iraq (USF-I), a command entity subordinate to U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM), must withdrawal from Iraq by the end of 2011. Their departure will leave the Marine Guards and other American soldiers detailed to the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad (approximately 200 people), periodic joint U.S.-Iraq military exercises, and thousands of American-hired civilian contractors as the main semi-permanent U.S. security presence in the country.
Lengthy delays on the Iraqi side contributed to the failure to begin formal talks on the extension issue in a timely manner. For about a year after the March 2010 parliamentary elections, no Iraqi government existed with the authority to negotiate such an extension. It was not until December 2010 that Iraqi politicians agreed on the composition of a new coalition government. Even after the new coalition took office, the senior defense, interior, and national security posts remained vacant, which complicated Iraqi negotiations with the United States.
On August 3, 2011, the Iraqi Cabinet authorized Iraqi representatives to commence talks with U.S. representatives regarding a possible extension of the mandate for U.S. troops in Iraq, which would focus on training Iraqi troops, but these talks never proceeded very far. The Cabinet decision itself covered over major divisions among Iraqis. Many Iraqi leaders wanted a continued U.S. military presence beyond their announced December 2011 withdrawal date to assist with urgent security tasks. But they were unwilling to take the bold and perhaps suicidal political stance of confronting the many Iraqis and their foreign allies who wanted all U.S. forces to leave their country forever. Furthermore, even more Iraqis balked at meeting U.S. demands for immunity for any American soldiers who remain into 2012 and beyond of the mistreatment of Iraqis at Abu Ghraib prison and elsewhere by the U.S. military.
The legal immunity dispute led President Obama finally to announce on October 21 that all U.S. combat units would leave Iraq by the end of the year. The President said that, through this decision, the administration had met its campaign promise and that he and Iraqi leaders felt comfortable that the country could function well on its own.
In addition, the U.S.-Iraq Strategic Framework agreement, signed in November 2008, could help sustain important diplomatic, economic, and social interactions between the two countries. The agreement established joint coordinating committees and some two dozen Implementation Working Groups, but because the agreement gives Iraq the initiative in defining the relationship, so far its implementation has been largely stymied by the political paralysis in Baghdad, which has made Iraqi officials reluctant to commit to long-term policies toward anything.
Biden commented on the importance of the strategic framework agreement in defining Iraqi-U.S. ties in the future: It “will be the cornerstone of bilateral relationship … and … includes political, economic, commercial, cultural and scientific sectors that will boost bilateral relations towards greater cooperation and understanding in future.” Unlike the SOFA security agreement, the framework agreement does not expire.
While in Baghdad, Biden joined with Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki to co-chair a session of the U.S.-Iraq Higher Coordinating Committee, which oversees implementation of the strategic framework agreement. Al-Maliki, who claimed that he had been a target of an assassination attempt a few days before Biden arrived, expressed confidence in the ability of Iraqi troops to maintain internal security. But he did see a role for American forces to return as trainers of the Iraqi armed forces, who are planning to purchase advanced U.S. weapons systems in coming years: “No doubt, the U.S. forces have a role in providing training of Iraqi forces.”
U.S. officials have indicated interest in having some U.S. troops return as trainers after the formal U.S. withdrawal is complete at the end of 2011. Biden said that, “We will continue our discussions with your government over the substance of our security arrangements, including areas of training, intelligence and counterterrorism.” But no formal talks on such a resumed mission have yet begun.
Biden has been the leading point man for the administration on Iraq and has cultivated good ties with its political leaders. The fear is that, with almost all U.S. troops departing from the country, he and other senior U.S. officials will be much less likely to visit there.
Perhaps a more candid assessment of the current security situation came on December 7 during the last video conference briefing in the Pentagon from U.S. Forces in Iraq, with Deputy Commander Lt. Gen. Frank Helmick. He told journalists that, “We really don’t know what’s going to happen” after all U.S. combat units depart.
Helmick added that, “We do know we have done everything we can in the time that we have been here for the Iraqi security forces to make sure they have a credible security force to provide for the internal security of their country.” The ISF have had lead responsibility for preserving internal security since June 2010, with limited U.S. military support. Whereas Iraq no longer had a functioning army, air force, or navy in 2003, the ISF now number about 700,000 people in the aggregate if one also includes their marine corps and various federal and local police forces.
Helmick said that the U.S. forces had left them with “some of the best [equipment] we have,” including M1 Abram tanks, artillery, and personnel protection equipment. But he stressed that the most important legacy the U.S. military left Iraqi security forces is the professionalism, confidence and esprit de corps. He also claimed that their special operations forces “are the best in the region.” The ISF face such internal security threats as al-Qaeda, Iranian-backed Shiite militia, and other violent extremist organizations. The Iraqis must also cope with lingering ethnic tensions, Sunni-Shia disputes poor Arab-Kurd relations, and a government that, despite having been elected in March 2010, still lacks permanent ministers of defense or interior.
The General confirmed that the ISF cannot ensure Iraq’s external security from foreign threats. Their weak air force cannot guarantee national air sovereignty or defense against air attacks. The underdeveloped navy cannot defend the country’s offshore oil platforms or the oil wells located in border regions. Their ability to conduct integrated combined arms operations “synchronizing their infantry with their armor, with their artillery, with their engineers is not quite yet there.
Helmick provided some interesting details of the logistics operation involved in withdrawing U.S. military forces from the country, which is as large of California. The U.S. military is engaged in one of the largest and most challenging logistics operations in history. Helmick correctly boasted that “the magnitude and scale of what we are doing here in Iraq is simply historic.” The combined U.S. force in 2007 amounted to some 300,00 DoD military and civilian personnel as well as DoD-hired contractors. As of December 7, only some 8,000 U.S. military and 5,000 Pentagon contractors remained. The number of U.S. military bases in Iraq has fallen from 505 in 2007 to only 5 on December 7.
Since the concentrated drawdown of U.S. forces from Iraq began 18 months ago, truck drivers have logged more than 16 million miles transporting U.S. equipment and war material out of the country. According to Helmick, “that equates to about 482 times around the Earth” He added that this operation “has been operationally focused–it’s been done very, very quietly and in a professional manner.” Some of the removed equipment goes to Afghanistan or U.S. forces in the Persian Gulf; most goes back to the United States.
The Pentagon plans to remove the last 1,000 truckloads of military equipment from Iraq this month. It is leaving the remaining items for the Iraqi military, which both bolsters the ISF capacities and saves the Pentagon transportation costs.
General Helmick called determining which piece of equipment to withdrawal and which to transfer to the Iraqis “an agonizing process to determine, number one, can we legally leave it here? Does it enhance the security acceleration capability for the Iraqi security forces? Is it more cost effective to leave here, or is it more cost effective to take it with us and ship it either to Afghanistan or back to the United States?”
For earlier contributions on Iraq 2012 see the following: