As the original withdrawal deadline of December 31, 2011 under the Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) edges ever closer for U.S. troops in Iraq, reports have emerged that Defense Secretary Leon Panetta has come out in support of a plan that would keep 3,000 to 4,000 American troops in the country beyond this year. Their sole purpose will be to provide training for the Iraqi security forces.
On the other hand, senior military figures such as General Lloyd J. Austin III -- the senior American commander in Iraq -- would prefer to see a much larger and open-ended presence of around 14,000 to 18,000 U.S. troops. Such a view is based on four lines of argument that ultimately do not stand up to scrutiny.
Generally, when U.S. military and think tanks argue for a significant indefinite presence of American forces, they highlight concerns over Iranian influence, ethnic and sectarian tensions in Iraq's north, problems in forming an Iraqi government, and conducting counter-terrorism operations against groups like al-Qaeda. However, even where these anxieties are valid, it does not follow that a large U.S. military presence is the solution.
Iranian influence: The presence of U.S. troops is supposedly the only thing that can prevent Iran from turning Iraq into a subservient satellite state. Nevertheless, there are several problems with this claim. Although Nouri al-Maliki's government maintains friendly economic and diplomatic ties with Tehran, political parties in Iraq that are perceived as having pro-Iranian agendas do not win significant support even among the Shi'a population.
For example, the Supreme Islamic Council, which is probably Iran's staunchest ally in Iraq and changed its name from "Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq" amid suspicions of being an Iranian agent, only won 20 seats out of 325 in Iraq's parliamentary elections in March 2010.
One of the main reasons for this outcome is that the Shi'a clergy in Iraq generally reject the principle of velayat-e-faqih, or "guardianship of the clerics," that forms the basis of Iran's system of government. The concern for the Iraqi Shi'a religious authorities and the mainstream Shi'a parties (e.g. the Dawa party) is to maintain Shi'a dominance in internal Iraqi politics, not to subordinate the nation to Iranian interests.
In any case, maintaining a large American military presence is only going to lead to continued Iranian support for the Shi'a militant "Special Groups" (e.g. The Hezbollah Brigades) that receive financial aid and arms supplies from Tehran via smuggling through Maysan province in the southeast. Owing to restrictions on movement, U.S. troops have become easy targets for the Special Groups, which in general do not attack the Iraqi security forces, for good reason.
After all, when al-Maliki aimed to consolidate his power base in the period 2007-2008, he successfully used the Iraqi army against the most powerful Shi'a militia at the time -- Muqtada al-Sadr's "Mahdi Army" -- in "Operation Charge of the Knights" in the spring of 2008. The Mahdi Army was subsequently forced to disband. The Shi'a militants cannot afford to cross swords with the central government again.
Ethnic and sectarian tensions in the north: This problem is indeed a real one, and amid the debate on whether U.S. troops should stay beyond the original SOFA deadline, Massoud Barzani -- president of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) -- has urged Baghdad to sign an agreement with the United States to keep forces beyond 2011. The reasoning is that American forces have helped to maintain peace between Arabs and Kurds in cities such as oil-rich Kirkuk, which Jalal Talabani's party recently declared to be Kurdish and not subject to negotiation, even though the Iraqi constitution stipulates that a referendum should have been held on Kirkuk's status in 2007.
Nonetheless, the tensions are much more complicated, and go back to issues that are too deeply rooted to be resolved through mediation by a U.S. military presence. Kirkuk is also home to a substantial number of Assyrian Christians and Yezidis, both of whom have seen their political representatives (the Assyrian Democratic Movement and Yezidi Progress Movement respectively) marginalized by the KRG.
Concerning the Yezidis, the problem is that the Yezidis do not identify as Kurds but are not recognized by the KRG Constitution as a separate ethnic group, while Assyrians have legitimate grievances that pre-date the U.S. invasion in 2003, such as the fact that in October 2002 the KRG passed a resolution legalizing the confiscation of Assyrian land by Peshmerga militiamen.
Thus, as analyst Joel Wing of Musings on Iraq points out, the joint patrols created by the United States have only helped to maintain the tense status quo, not to alleviate the animosities between the various ethno-religious groups. Most of these patrols have already been pulled out, with no noticeable change in the situation.
Breaking the deadlock between Iraqi politicians: It is argued that an extended U.S. presence can exert sufficient pressure on Iraq's politicians to move beyond the stalemate in power-sharing and work towards forming a functioning administration. Yet this argument imputes too much power to the Americans in assuming that they are the decisive game-changers. On the contrary, there is little evidence to support such a view.
After the elections in March 2010, the root cause of the deadlock was the fact that al-Maliki remained intent on retaining his position as prime minister, while Ayad Allawi's "al-Iraqiya" bloc, having won the largest single number of seats in the parliament (91 seats as opposed to 89 for al-Maliki's "State of Law" bloc), continued to insist on its right to form a government, even as al-Maliki forged a new coalition with the Sadrists. Some headway was made in December when Massoud Barzani convened the quarrelling factions in Arbil and forged a compromise that allowed al-Maliki to remain prime minister for a second term, with a "Supreme Council for Strategic Policies" created to placate Allawi.
The United States had no influence in the creation of this compromise. To this day, the government has not been fully formed, despite the American presence, for al-Maliki has gone back on many of the terms of the compromise, aiming now to control the Defense Ministry, which was supposed to be awarded to Allawi's bloc.
Hence, only the final point remains regarding counter-terrorism operations against al-Qaeda and similar militant groups in Iraq. Here, there is valid concern, as the springtime assault by Sunni insurgents on the provincial government buildings in Tikrit still required a joint U.S.-Iraqi team to end the hostage crisis. Yet this issue can be resolved by keeping a small, residual U.S. force, as Panetta proposes, to provide further training for the Iraqi army, which continues to make progress in morale and performance.
In short, the U.S. military must appreciate that most of Iraq's problems are challenges for Iraqis to overcome. A sustained, large American presence has already aroused too much opposition from the Iraqi public and politicians to be a viable option. In contrast, the much reduced military role favored by the White House and Panetta is far more tenable. If the aim is to have good U.S.-Iraqi relations, the best approach is through the U.S. embassy not keeping a large number of troops in the country indefinitely.