President Obama is about to order the beginning of the end of the U.S. war and occupation of Iraq.
Or is he?
White House officials say that President Obama is about to announce a plan to pull all combat troops out of Iraq by 19 months from his inauguration – or August 2010 – three months later than his campaign promise of a 16-month pull-out. During his not-quite state of the union appearance before the two houses of Congress on Tuesday night, Obama said directly that he would be announcing "a way forward in Iraq that leaves Iraq to its people and responsibly ends this war."
As far as it goes, that sounds good. Three months difference in the pull-out timetable (a timetable! remember the Bush rejection of timetables until Iraqi pressure forced the issue in his last days in office??) is of relatively little significance. This is in fact an indication that President Obama is largely keeping to his campaign promises, and that’s a hopeful sign. It reflects the power of the anti-war consensus among the people of this country, a consensus that the organized anti-war movement, led by United for Peace and Justice, helped to build. Numerous commentators are noting that Obama’s early promise to "end the war" played a huge part in generating public support for his campaign. Even if we still believe that nineteen or even sixteen months is too long to continue the occupation, there should still be support for that kind of honesty and commitment to promises.
And if this plan were actually a first step towards the clear and unequivocal goal of a complete end to the U.S. occupation of Iraq, it would be better than good, it would be fabulous. That would mean defining this withdrawal as the first step towards a complete withdrawal of all troops, pulling out of all the 150,000+ U.S.-paid foreign mercenaries and contractors, closing all the U.S. military bases, and ending U.S. efforts to control Iraqi oil.
But. So far that is not on Obama’s agenda. And there are way too many potholes in the road ahead for us to unequivocally embrace this plan – and certainly too many for us to even consider giving up the urgent need for popular mobilization demanding a real end to the U.S. occupation of Iraq.
The problems start with the partial nature of the troop withdrawal. It leaves behind – officially – as many as 50,000 U.S. troops still occupying Iraq. That’s an awful lot of soldiers. Even Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi thinks that may be too much. She told Rachel Maddow "I don’t know what the justification is for 50,000, at the present …I would think a third of that, maybe 20,000, a little more than a third, 15,000 or 20,000."
Those troops won’t include officially-designated "combat" troops (though can you imagine any U.S. soldier in Iraq who doesn’t think she or he is facing the trauma of combat on a daily basis??). But those tens of thousands of troops will remain in Iraq. According to General Ray Odierno, U.S. commander in Iraq, U.S. strategy "will require a significant number of troops to train the Iraqi military, conduct targeted counterterrorism operations and protect American personnel and assets." Other officials speak of the plan to leave behind "intelligence and surveillance specialists and their equipment, including unmanned aircraft." And that’s just the part that they’re making public.
There’s also another problem. That huge contingent of "non-combat" troops that is left behind after the pull-out of official combat troops might actually include a whole bunch of combat troops. How? Well, the New York Times spelled it out last Dec. 4: "Pentagon planners say that it is possible that Mr. Obama’s goal [of pulling out combat troops] could be accomplished at least in part by re-labeling some units, so that those currently counted as combat troops could be ‘re-missioned,’ their efforts redefined as training and support for the Iraqis." They would do what combat troops do, they would walk and talk and bomb and shoot like combat troops. But they wouldn’t be called combat troops, so they could stay in Iraq.
According to the U.S. agreement with Iraq – known as a SOFA, or status of forces agreement and signed by a reluctant and defeated White House in the last days of the Bush administration – they couldn’t stay in Iraq indefinitely. The SOFA calls for all U.S. forces to be out of Iraq by the end of December 2011. President Obama’s announcement later this week may even reflect something like this goal too. But. Another "but." The Times admitted the "status-of-forces agreement remains subject to change, by mutual agreement, and U.S. Army planners acknowledge privately that they are examining projections that could see the number of Americans hovering between 30,000 and 50,000 – and some say as high as 70,000 – for a substantial time even beyond 2011."
Confirming that claim, retired General Barry McCaffrey, who has been a pretty reliable reflector of U.S. military thinking, wrote an internal report for the Pentagon after a trip to Iraq last year, obtained by The New Republic. McCaffrey wrote, "We should assume that the Iraqi government will eventually ask us to stay beyond 2011 with a residual force of trainers, counterterrorist capabilities, logistics, and air power. (My estimate–perhaps a force of 20,000 to 40,000 troops)."
The danger of such covert reclassification is three-fold. First, it continues the obfuscation, deception and lies that characterized how the war was waged from its inception. Second, it violates the agreement for full and complete withdrawal that the U.S. made with Iraqis – remember it was ratified by the parliament, not just signed off by the president as was the case in the U.S. And third, it makes future re-escalation a whole lot easier because the troops are already on the ground.
And even if we’re only talking about relatively small contingents of "residual" troops, what would they be doing? Are there plans to change their mission, to end completely any combat role for these remaining troops? If not, the resistance, both civil/political and military, against the U.S. occupation will continue.
The references to air power are particularly disturbing. The U.S. appears to be planning to control the skies over Iraq for years to come. As the number of U.S. combat troops decreases, there is the danger that airstrikes will escalate to compensate. That means even more Iraqi civilians being killed by the U.S. military. We need the withdraw all air and naval forces too – something the SOFA agreement mentions, but we have yet to hear anything from the Obama administration. The U.S. has been conducting continuous overflights and regular bombing of Iraq since January 1991 – isn’t 18 years of air war enough?
SITTING ON THE SOFA
The U.S.-Iraq agreement (which was ratified by the Iraqi parliament but never brought to the U.S. Senate for ratification, as mandated by the Constitution) also requires that a national referendum be held in Iraq during the summer of 2009 to approve or reject the timetable. It is certainly possible that – if the referendum is held at all – a vast majority of Iraqis would call for an even earlier timeline, saying that two and a half more years of occupation is too long. And it seems a real long-shot to imagine that the U.S. – despite the Obama administration’s commitment to diplomacy over force – would agree to abide by the popular will of the Iraqi people and pull out the troops immediately.
The SOFA agreement is clear on some things – it calls for all combat troops to be out of Iraqi cities by this summer, and all U.S. forces to be out of Iraq by the end of 2011. It even describes how all the U.S. bases must be turned over to Iraq by the end of 2011 too. But. Another but. The agreement is filled with loopholes big enough to drive an up-armored tank through. The biggest loophole is allowing both sides to suggest changes. The Iraqi government – from its beginnings dependent on and accountable to the U.S. – is certainly different now, it has created a significant domestic power base. But – do we really think that that government would refuse a quiet U.S. "request" for amending the agreement to push back or even eliminate the ostensibly final deadline for the withdrawal of all U.S. troops?
The military hasn’t been transformed with the election of President Obama. He is the commander in chief, but he has made clear his intention to listen to his military advisers (they pushed for the 19-month rather than 16-month withdrawal timeline). The oil companies and powerful contractors whose CEOs and stockholders have made billion dollar killings on Iraq contracts have not been transformed. Obama is president and has promised transparency in the contracting process, but he hasn’t promised to bring home all the mercenaries and contractors.
MERCENARIES & CONTRACTORS
Ending the U.S. occupation means ending all U.S. funding for the giant contractors – Dyncorp, Bechtel, Blackwater – that serve as out-sourced private unaccountable components of the U.S. military. The contractor companies – and the mercenaries they hire – were part of what led to Abu Ghraib. (Blackwater’s recent name change to "Xe" should not allow its role in killing Iraqi civilians to be forgotten.) Even as some troops may be withdrawn, we will need to mobilize for congressional hearings, independent investigations, and more on the human rights violations and misuse of taxpayer funds by the war profiteers who run these companies. President Obama’s decision to close the Guantanamo prison shows his awareness of severity of the crimes committed there. Ending the funding of the contractors who carried out so many of those crimes should be a logical next step.
U.S. MILITARY BASES
We’ve heard how long it will likely take to evacuate each of the 50+ U.S. military bases in Iraq (6 weeks for the small ones, 18 months for the biggest) but we haven’t heard any indication, let alone a promise, that they will actually be turned over to the Iraqis. The issue of bases places Iraq at the centerpiece of the broad global movement challenging the network of U.S. military bases all over the world. Opposition to the impact of those bases – environmental, social and women’s rights, economic and more – is rising in countries as diverse as Korea, Italy, Ecuador, Kyrgyzstan and more. In fact in some countries governments are joining with civil society to reject Washington’s global crusade. Kyrgyzstan decided to close the U.S. air base there, indicating they prefer Russian bribes to U.S. warplanes. (That decision may present the Obama administration with the unsavory prospect of renewing the U.S. alliance with Uzbekistan, whose government is characterized by some of the most egregious human rights violations in the world.) Ecuador has recently passed a new constitution prohibiting the presence of foreign military bases on their soil, and is in the process of ending its hosting of the U.S. airbase at Manta.
As the Obama administration seeks new ways to cut military spending, closing the 50+ Iraqi bases, particularly the five mega-bases becomes an urgent necessity. And the giant embassy-on-steroids that the Bush administration built to house up to 5,000 U.S. diplomats and officials should be closed down as a relic of an illegal war launched to maintain control of the country, people and resources of Iraq.
Certainly almost three more years of acknowledged occupation is way too long. That’s almost half again as long as the U.S. occupation of Iraq has been going today. But even so, if this 19-month partial withdrawal really was a first step towards a complete end of the Iraq war and occupation, if this really meant that the troops in Iraq would be brought home instead of redeployed to another failing war in Afghanistan, if this really meant that President Obama’s promise that "I will end the war" was about to be made real – then 19 months wouldn’t be so bad.
Then, at last, we could begin making good on our real debt to the people of Iraq. Make good on the U.S. obligations for compensation (money to Iraqis themselves, not to overpaid U.S. contractors), for reparations (including for the years of society-destroying economic sanctions), for support for Iraqi-led international help in peacekeeping and in demilitarizing Iraq after so many years of occupation and war.
So far, though, we’re not seeing any of that. So far, there are too many "buts." We know there is no military solution in Iraq – and continuing an "occupation lite" to muscle out competitors in oil contracts, or to maintain a power-expansion presence in the region, or to create the illusion of "peace with honor" – none of these things justify continuing an illegal U.S. occupation. Pulling out any troops from Iraq is a good thing. But so far, our job hasn’t ended — to mobilize, to pressure, to continue to educate and advocate and agitate for a real end to the war. We have a lot of work to do.
Phyllis Bennis is a Fellow of the Institute for Policy Studies. Her most recent books include Ending the Iraq War: A Primer.