Director of Analysis Reva Bhalla discusses the constraints on Washington in negotiating an extension for U.S. forces in Iraq.
Editor’s Note: Transcripts are generated using speech-recognition technology. Therefore, STRATFOR cannot guarantee their complete accuracy. Over the past week there has been a great deal of discussion coming out of Washington concerning the number of troops the United States should leave in Iraq past the 2011 withdrawal deadline. This is a decision that centers squarely on the issue of containing Iran, but at the moment the United States is on the losing end of that negotiation. The news that attracted the most attention in recent days was a leak in the New York Times claiming that Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta supported keeping 3,000-4000 troops in Iraq. This caused a great deal of controversy and led to a series of denials by White House officials as the United States tried to avoid looking like it was simply bending to Iranian pressure and accepting a very limited military presence in the Persian Gulf region. The size, role, and disposition of a future U.S. military contingent in Iraq matters a great deal to both Washington and Tehran. The United States has a strategic interest in maintaining a division of at least 10,000 troops in Iraq. This would serve as a significant, and in many ways symbolic, blocking force against Iran that would be configured in such a way to rapidly respond to potential acts of Iranian aggression. Iran, however, is doing everything it can to clear its western flank and would prefer keeping a much smaller U.S. presence in Iraq, something along the lines of 3,000 troops, a small enough force that would remain highly vulnerable to Iranian-backed militant proxies, thereby enhancing Iran's leverage over Washington and Iraq. For this reason, Iran has spent a great deal of resources in recent weeks and months in trying to steer specific Iraqi factions away from approving a large U.S. military presence in Iraq. The Kurds, for example, have the strongest interest in keeping the U.S. there as its primary security guarantor. But at the same time the Iranians have been busy waging a major military offensive in the Iraqi-Iranian northern borderlands, making clear to the Iraqi Kurdish leadership the costs of going against Tehran's wishes on the issue of remaining U.S. troops in the country. At the same time Iran has been relying principally on followers of Iraqi Shiite leader Muqtada al-Sadr to threaten a major destabilization campaign in the country, should the United States try to overstay its welcome. The United States faces a difficult time in trying to achieve its strategic goal in Iraq, but at the same time Washington is not left without options. The United States could always float a number of, say, 3,000-4,000 troops, and appear conciliatory in a back-channel negotiation with Iran. But the exact number of remaining U.S. forces and, more importantly, the type of forces that remain, could be kept deliberately ambiguous by Washington in practice. Moreover, the United States will maintain a force in Iraq appropriate to the nature of the Iranian threat. By that I mean Iran is more likely to rely on unconventional means to achieve its aims in Iraq, and for that the United States will need to maintain a large covert and special operations forces presence in the country to meet that challenge. For now, the United States is essentially negotiating a holding pattern in Iraq. In the longer term though, Iran may not be in as comfortable of a position as it is now, especially considering the rise of Turkey in the region and the potential fall of a Syrian regime friendly to Iranian interests. The United States may therefore be in a suboptimal position vis-à-vis Iran in negotiating its position on Iraq, but any plans drawn now for a future U.S. military contingent in Iraq will be designed to create more options for the United States in the future.