by Eric Martin
One of my favorite up and coming analysts, Michael Hanna, really drives home the points I was trying to make in a recent post on the tendency on the part of US analysts (and leaders) to ignore the constraints of the SOFA, and Iraqi public opinion,when discussing possible timelines for withdrawal. As if the latter two facets of the story are ancillary concerns, if that.
With President Obama likely to announce a 19-month timeline for the withdrawal of U.S. combat forces from Iraq in the coming days, debate over the form, sequencing, and extent of the withdrawal has gathered momentum. But much of the discussion is being conducted from a Washington-centric perspective that ignores how radically the U.S.-Iraq Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA), signed by President Bush late last year, has altered the landscape for U.S. military forces operating in Iraq.
As part of the SOFA, the United States is required to withdraw its military forces from Iraqi cities by June 30, 2009, and from the country entirely by the end of 2011. Though some critics think this timeline is too fast, there is a good chance that the U.S. may be forced to withdraw even sooner: In order to coax reticent parliamentarians into approving the agreement, the Maliki government has agreed to hold a national referendum in July of this year to ratify the SOFA. If the SOFA fails to pass, the United States would have just one year to withdraw all its military forces from Iraq.
Beyond forcing an expedited withdrawal, a failed referendum would likely cause even U.S. allies among Iraqi politicians to ratchet up the level of nationalist demagoguery against the U.S. military presence to position themselves for their parliamentary campaigns. In such a heated atmosphere, insurgents could also prove more likely to step up their activity against withdrawing U.S. troops, radicalizing the environment for parliamentary elections and further complicating the redeployment of U.S. troops. Whether or not a future U.S.-Iraqi military relationship is advisable beyond the terms of the SOFA, such a scenario would likely preclude the Iraqi government from seeking support for it. Opponents of the United States would also frame a withdrawal under these circumstances as a repudiation of the United States and a defeat for U.S. policy in the region.
Further, the Obama administration would be making a mistake were it to delay all but a nominal withdrawal of troops until after the December elections - as alluded to in this New York Times piece from today. Hanna explains why:
In this context, significant drawdowns in upcoming months will become a litmus test for the credibility and seriousness of the Obama administration in respecting public commitments to withdraw U.S. forces from Iraq. While the exact timeline for withdrawing U.S. forces is less important, if no significant redeployments occur prior to the national referendum, Iraqi public opinion could very well conclude that Washington is determined to maintain a significant military presence in Iraq regardless of the public pronouncements and treaty obligations to the contrary.
Better that the U.S. begin withdrawal now, on its own terms--and in the process, enhance the chances that the SOFA will not be rejected by the Iraqi people. At the same time, President Obama would project an unmistakable message to the Arab world that the United States is serious in recalibrating the nature of its engagement with the region.
In some quarters, it is widely assumed that Iraqis' rhetorical opposition to the U.S. military presence belies a begrudging acceptance of U.S. troops as the price of preserving recent security gains. However, gambling on Iraqi support for a continuing foreign military presence would seem to be a risky policy-planning approach that could create the conditions for a hasty withdrawal on highly unfavorable terms.
On these matters, I'll take Hanna over O'Hanlon and Pollack any day of the week.