The Parting: The Pentagon and Iraq

2012-07-17  By Richard Weitz

The U.S. military operated in since 2008 and until their departure in 2010 under a special Status of Forces Agreement

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, governed the U.S. military presence in Iraq.

The SOFA granted American troops their legal rights and prerogatives when under Iraqi jurisdiction. The agreement 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 has left 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 potentially thousands of American-hired civilian contractors as the main semi-permanent U.S. security presence in the country.

In his February 27, 2009 speech at Camp Lejeune, President Barack Obama established an interim deadline of removing all U.S. combat brigades by the end of August 2010.

Even before that date, Iraqi authorities had assumed responsibility for maintaining security in their urban centers since July 2009, with American combat personnel staying mainly in the background. Between the summers of 2009 and 2010, U.S. troops mostly provided intelligence, advice, and logistical support to Iraqi military and police personnel.

What Iraq really needed was enhanced external defenses, which can best be taught by the Pentagon rather than the State Department, which has traditionally focused on police training and other internal security missions. The failure to execute an ability to shape Iraqi defenses in the region could be replicated in Afghanistan in an inability to shape an Afghani mobile force capacity, otherwise known as the failure to shape Afghan airpower useful to a transition. Credit Image: Bigstock

In principle, Iraqi commanders had to approve every major military operation conducted by American forces in their country.

After August 31, 2010, the U.S. role in Iraq changed from a military mission, Operation Iraqi Freedom, led by the Department of Defense (DOD), to a primarily civilian mission, called “New Dawn,” led by the Department of State (DOS).

The military-to-civilian hand-off, which has resulted in the State Department’s assuming full responsibility for the U.S. presence in Iraq since October 1, 2011, aimed to transform their primarily defense-focused relationship into a more balanced partnership with strong diplomatic and development pillars. This transition concluded on December 18, 2011, when the last units of U.S. Forces-Iraq (USF-I) left the country and State assumed exclusive leadership for the official U.S. presence.

From August 2010 until the fall of 2011, a transitional force of around 50,000 U.S. troops remained in Iraq, carrying out a “responsible drawdown.”

American soldiers also continued some partnered counterterrorist operations with Iraqi forces against the remnants of al-Qaeda in Iraq and other extremists.

Furthermore, they maintained their joint patrols and other security confidence-building measures as part of the Combined Security Mechanism (CSM), established in 2009, between the Iraqi national army and Kurdish paramilitary units. These joint patrols, joint checkpoints, and coordination centers promoted transparency and prevented an escalation of a small local incident into a larger Arab-Kurd confrontation.

The CSM have proved particularly useful in averting armed clashes near the explosively contested city of Kirkuk. Their rules of engagement permitted them to use force to protect themselves, U.S. and UN civilians who are supporting Iraq capacity building efforts, and important Iraqi economic reconstruction projects.

Finally, the main function of the U.S. forces was to advise and assist (basically train and equip) Iraqi military personnel. They followed a tiered minimal essential capabilities list that has prioritized providing Iraqi forces with the capabilities they need for internal defense against insurgents and terrorists.

In contrast, U.S. assistance has sought to give the Iraqi armed forces only the basic foundations for external defense, which were to have provided a basis for later capacity building programs that have since been radically scaled back.

The issue of how many, if any, U.S. combat troops would remain in Iraq in 2012 and under what conditions dominated Iraq-U.S. discussions in 2011. 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.

A range of missions was considered suitable for a continued U.S. military presence.

The most obvious, and one that enjoyed the most support among Iraqi military leaders, was further training and equipping of Iraqi Security Forces. Furthermore, U.S. forces could have continued partnered counterterrorist operations with Iraqi forces against the extremists.

In addition, U.S. forces could have helped prevent infiltration of extremists into Iraq from other countries. For example, U.S. military forces could have continued partnered counterterrorist operations with Iraqi forces against AQI and other extremists. They could also have deployed along the boundary between Kurdistan and the rest of Iraq.

To reassure Kurdish, Arab, Turkomen, and other residents of the province, USF-I developed an innovative plan in August 2009 to partner U.S. forces with Kurdish peshmerga paramilitary and Iraqi regular army units in the province. Until the U.S. military withdrawal, the three forces engaged in joint patrols, joint checkpoints, coordination centers, and other security confidence-building measures (CBMs) designed to promote transparency and prevent an escalation of a small local incident into a larger Arab-Kurd confrontation. The CBMs have proved particularly useful in averting armed clashes near the explosively ethnically contested and city of Kirkuk.

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.

And Iraqi politicians were naturally reluctant to debate such a divisive issue. There was some brinkmanship involved in these deadlines, since the U.S. military was able until late 2011 to rotate in some new troops into Iraq even while withdrawing the existing ones.

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 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.

U.S. representatives had made increasingly clear that they wanted to keep a residual force in Iraq in 2012 and beyond. An array of senior civilian and military leaders visited Baghdad in 2011 and urged Iraqi leaders to address the issue of whether to retain a post-2011 U.S. military presence—warning them to reach a decision soon before the U.S. withdraw proceeded beyond the point of no return.

Several considerations explained the U.S. government’s desire to maintain a military presence in Iraq after 2011.

The most serious concern was that the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF), consisting of the army and police, would not prove capable of preserving security after the U.S. troops leave, wasting all the achievements the U.S. military made, at great personal and financial cost, in recovering from the post-invasion fiascos and restoring stability to Iraq.

Another Iraqi security collapse would contribute to regional instability, perhaps allowing Islamist terrorists to reestablish a major presence in the region or Iran to bring Iraq under its control. Although the overall security situation had improved since the 2006-2007 nadir, the terrorists were still able to achieve notable successes, and some analysts see a decrease in security in 2011, when attacks, included several mass-casualty suicide bombings, killed hundreds of Iraqi security personnel and civilians.

In addition, U.S. officials raised concerns that Iraqi forces would not prove able to protect the large number of American military contractors, diplomats, and other citizens who were to remain in Iraq beyond 2011.

The State Department and private contractors were to perform some of these defense capacity building missions, but they lacked many of the capabilities—and certainly the resources—of the U.S. armed services.

What Iraq really needed was enhanced external defenses, which can best be taught by the Pentagon rather than the State Department, which has traditionally focused on police training and other internal security missions.

In addition, delays in enacting the fiscal year 2011 and 2012 federal budgets, and major reductions in State Department funds, have impeded the transition of Pentagon-led missions to U.S. civilian agencies, especially State, which is scheduled to double the number of its in-country personnel, and the Iraqis.

To minimize sectarian tensions between Iraqis, many U.S. officials wanted U.S. military personnel to continue to conduct joint patrols, operate checkpoints, and sustain other confidence-building systems associated with the Combined Security Mechanism (CSM).  These CSMs between Iraqi Kurds and Iraqi Arabs, especially along Arab-Kurdish lines in the governorates of Diyala, Ninewa and Kirkuk would have been especially helpful.

A RAND study released in late July warned that, “Without significant U.S. involvement — and perhaps even with it, given enough time — Arab and Kurdish participants will eventually have a dispute that leads to violence, which will cause the [confidence-building] mechanism to degrade or collapse.”

U.S. forces based in Iraq could also have helped secure the country’s sensitive borders with Syria and Iran and, more generally, balance Tehran’s influence both directly and by countering the infiltration of Iranian-trained Shiite militia.

Furthermore, a major U.S. military presence in Iraq would have helped hedge against the uncertainties that prevail in Washington, Baghdad, and elsewhere regarding how the Arab Spring might affect Iraq, which has thus far largely escaped its revolutionary impact.

Iraqi leaders as well as the Iraqi public were deeply divided on the issue of whether to support a continued U.S. military presence in their country.

Iraqi political and especially security leaders worried about a return of sectarian violence without a major U.S. military presence. They also acknowledged that the Iraqi armed forces cannot defend their country from external attack, at least for several more years. Yet, Iraqi politicians feared that citing their country’s security weaknesses as the reason why U.S. troops should remain after 2011 would expose them to attack for lacking faith in their soldiers or for serving as agents of U.S. imperialism.

Many Iraqis wanted all U.S. combat forces out as soon as possible, regardless of the security risks. Even some Iraqis who might have supported an American military presence objected to granting U.S. forces comprehensive legal immunity from prosecution, which Mullen and other U.S. officials have demand of the Iraqi parliament.

As soon as the Iraqi government agreed to open formal negotiations about a SOFA extension, a joint U.S.-Iraqi raid in late July against Al Rufait resulted in several civilian casualties and reignited popular antagonism against the existing legal immunities enjoyed by U.S. military personnel against what the local media was calling a “crime.”

Perhaps the greatest obstacles to an extended U.S. military presence in Iraq were political.

One of its core components of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki’s ruling coalition, the Sadrist bloc, which was popular among radical Shiites, was strongly opposed to a continued U.S. military presence. Its leader Moqtada al-Sadr, son of revered Grand Ayatollah Mohammed Sadiq al-Sadr, had threatened violence should the U.S. military presence in Iraq continue beyond the end of 2011. The movement claimed responsibility for many of the continuing attacks on the U.S. soldiers in Iraq. It was only with great difficulty that al-Maliki and the Iraqi national army suppressed the Sadr militia in 2008, following several years of vicious street fighting. The Sadrists had several cabinet minister in al-Maliki’s coalition government, and the bloc’s members of parliament provided crucial legislative backing.

Al-Maliki could probably have survived a withdrawal of the bloc from his coalition if he could secure a deal with his main rival, former Prime Minister Ayad Allawi, whose party finished first in the 2010 national elections for the Council of Representatives, the formal name of Iraq’s parliament. Allawi seemed open for a deal in which his Iraqiya bloc would support a new coalition in parliament in return for several key posts, including that of defense minister. Under such an arrangement Allawi would have served as head of the new national strategic policy council following the parliament’s approval. But al-Maliki and Allawi proved unable to consummate their agreement.

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.

By the summer of 2011, 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 extension. 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.

At times in 2011, U.S. officials had indicated interest in having some U.S. troops return to Iraq as trainers now that the formal U.S. withdrawal has been completed. On August 13, 2010, Brigadier General Ralph Baker, the deputy commander of U.S. forces in central Iraq, had pointed out that the United States has long-term strategic relationships with several Middle Eastern countries, “including Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Bahrain, and the United Arab Emirates.” He emphasized that if the Iraqi government wanted a similar relationship, the United States will assist in increasing Iraq’s conventional capabilities.

At the end of 2011, al-Maliki said he saw 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.”  Civilian contractors will remain in Iraq to help teach Iraqi forces how to use the new U.S.-made hardware they have purchased, from F-16 fighters to Abrams tanks.

U.S. officials have indicated they were open to the idea of some U.S. troops returning as trainers after the formal withdrawal was complete at the end of 2011, but that still would require a resolution of the legal immunity issue. 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.

(Editor’s Note: The failure to help shape Iraqi defenses in the region, which could be replicated in Afghanistan, is a key issue in judging the legacy of the Obama Administration.  The inability to build transition with forces such as the Iraqi Air Force – which Secretary Wynne spearheaded in 2007 – and to replicate this inability in Afghanistan is an important measuring stick of effective policy in the region.  Transitions are difficult, but not impossible to shape.)