Director of Military Analysis Nathan Hughes examines the logistical and security implications of the impending withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq.
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On Oct. 21, U.S. President Barack Obama formally announced that, with a few minor exceptions, all U.S. military personnel would be leaving Iraq before the end of the year in accordance with the status-of-forces agreement between Washington and Baghdad. The U.S. has spent most of the year, both officially and unofficially, attempting to arrange some sort of an extension for as many as 20,000, and as few as a couple thousand, U.S. troops to remain in Iraq beyond the end of the year deadline for a complete withdrawal. What none of this would do is address the underlying issue of resurgent Iranian power, not just in Iraq, but the wider region, and this is something the U.S. has yet to come up with a meaningful response for. From a military perspective, the U.S. training presence's advisory and assistance role, particularly in issues of maintenance, planning and logistics, will inherently leave the Iraqi military and Iraqi security forces less capable than they are now. The U.S. military presence in Iraq has been pivotal to U.S. situational awareness across the country. In some cases, U.S. forces were still operating alongside Iraqi forces, but even where they were not, the disposition of American forces and the nature of their presence meant that the U.S. had a considerable awareness of the way in which Iraqi forces were being employed and their operational performance on the field, as well as the ways in which Iraqi commanders were directing and employing those forces. The U.S. also maintained considerable freedom of action in terms of the way in which it employed intelligence surveillance and reconnaissance platforms in Iraqi airspace. This means that even as the U.S. inevitably ramps up its covert collection capabilities, both inside Iraq and by other means, there will be a considerable lapse and degradation of the U.S. intelligence gathering and situational awareness capabilities in Iraq. In terms of the drawdown itself, while contingency plans have long been in place and forces in Iraq have been preparing for the contingency of drawdown, just under 40,000 U.S. troops remain in the country, positioned at over a dozen facilities that have to be sanitized and handed over to Iraqis. This means that an enormous challenge remains for the U.S. in Iraq, in terms of managing vulnerabilities and exposure during the process of withdrawal. But the other significant question was the security of U.S. nationals that remained behind beyond the deadline for withdrawal. Some military forces, a couple hundred total, remain behind to facilitate the transfer of U.S. arms, training and the presence at the U.S. Embassy. The U.S. military has been an enormously important backstop for the overall security of U.S. nationals in the country. Without the presence of nearly 50,000 U.S. troops that has defined the security environment in recent years, there will inherently be a greater exposure and vulnerability of the U.S. personnel that remain behind in the years ahead.