President Obama is fulfilling his promise to wind down the Iraq war. When he took office, there were about 142,000 U.S. troops on the ground; now there are 46,000. All are supposed to be gone by Dec. 31 under a 2008 agreement between Washington and Baghdad.
The war, which never should have been launched, has cost more than 4,450 U.S. lives and hundreds of billions of dollars over eight long years. Like most other Americans, we are eager to see our troops back home and out of harm’s way. But if Iraq requests it, there are legitimate reasons to keep a small military force there — if the mission is carefully drawn.
Iraq still needs help building its military and calming tensions between Arabs and Kurds in the north. A small American force — there is talk of 8,000 to 15,000 troops — would send a big message to Iraq and its neighbors that Washington is not ceding the region to Iran. Tehran has been increasing its meddling in recent months.
Experts say most Iraqi factions want the Americans to remain a while longer. No Iraqi politicians have been willing to say that publicly. Their fractious political system indulges foot-dragging well beyond the 11th hour.
The Obama Administration, which has demanded an answer for months, is understandably frustrated. “Do they want us to stay, don’t they want us to stay?” Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said in Baghdad this week, adding: “Dammit, make a decision.”
The logistics of withdrawing thousands of troops and their equipment are complicated. But the administration is pleading too hard. This must be an Iraqi decision, and Iraqis have to live with the consequences.
If Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki or any other leaders want an extension of the 2008 withdrawal agreement, they need to speak up soon and to tell their supporters why this is good for the country. Uniting in common cause is their best hope of neutralizing Moktada al-Sadr, whose pro-Iran faction has long insisted that all U.S. troops must leave.
If a residual force stays, the mandate should be carefully drawn: gathering intelligence and, when needed, supporting Iraqi forces in going after insurgents; continuing military training, and conducting patrols with Arabs and Kurds along the disputed internal border.
Iraq’s government must commit to going aggressively after Shiite militias that have increasingly targeted American troops. Any deployment should be reviewed periodically to see whether it is needed and still makes sense.
President Obama has concluded the American combat role in Iraq and is beginning the drawdown in Afghanistan. He must be held accountable for his promises, but also must be prepared to modify his policy when needed.
If Iraq asks, he should say yes — but only if Iraq asks.
— New York Times