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Mar 5, 2010 | 21:47 GMT

29 mins read

The U.S. Withdrawal From Iraq

The United States plans to withdraw all combat forces from Iraq by the end of 2011, with the drawdown slated to accelerate following the March 7 parliamentary elections. However, those elections could upset the fragile political situation that has held in Baghdad for five years, albeit with considerable U.S. oversight. Internal ethno-sectarian tensions and external forces with interests in Iraq also threaten to complicate matters. STRATFOR examines the factors that could affect the withdrawal and determine the fate of the region for years to come.

Introduction

Though the war in Afghanistan has consumed U.S. attention, more than 100,000 U.S. troops remain on the ground in Iraq. Their drawdown is planned to begin in earnest following Iraq's parliamentary elections — scheduled to be held on March 7 — with all combat troops withdrawn and only some 50,000 support and advisory troops remaining in the country by the end of August. Yet the political gains made possible by the 2007 surge of troops into Iraq remain fragile, and sectarian tensions already have begun to boil back to the surface. The exit of U.S. forces from Iraq remains contingent upon a number of factors. Foremost is the durability of the post-Baathist system established in the aftermath of the U.S. invasion. This delicate ethno-sectarian balance of power has held together for one five-year parliamentary term, albeit under heavy U.S. oversight. But the sustainability of this arrangement is in question, with a looming American drawdown and mounting tensions among the Shia, Sunnis and Kurds, as well as significant internal rivalries in these factions. The outcome of the March 7 vote will largely determine the course of the ethno-sectarian struggle — whether the political balance maintained since the end of the Sunni insurgency in 2007 will continue or fall apart.

The Shia, backed by their patron, Iran, are in the middle of an aggressive campaign to ensure that the Sunnis do not threaten the dominant position they have carved out for themselves during the last seven years. Conversely, the Sunnis, who less than three years ago ended their insurgency, do not feel as though the accommodation promised them — integration into the security forces and the political process — has been delivered. They feel threatened with further marginalization — a threat they could well eventually react to with a return to violence. Meanwhile, the Kurds are exploiting this sectarian fault line to further their own ambitions in an effort to retain the autonomy they have enjoyed since the end of the 1991 Persian Gulf War. And the jihadists, who are trying to take advantage of the ethno-sectarian divide to pursue their transnational agenda, will also have their say in how the withdrawal proceeds.

 

 

 

 

 

One result of the U.S. move to effect regime change in Baghdad has been the rise of Iran.

U.S. drawdown plans are jeopardized not only by events and players within Iraq. One result of the U.S. move to effect regime change in Baghdad has been the rise of Iran. The Islamic republic, through its Shiite allies, has gained a disproportionate amount of influence in Iraq, which it is using to project power into the region. The dominant presence of the U.S. military in Iraq and the U.S. hand in the political system has thus far served as a counterweight. A U.S. withdrawal will give Iran an opening to enhance its position in the country. Saudi Arabia and the smaller Gulf Cooperation Council countries also are concerned about their own security in the face of an assertive Iran and its regional ambitions. A key part of allaying the Arab states' concerns is ensuring that Iraq's Sunnis are sufficiently empowered to serve as a bulwark against Iran. But from the point of view of the Arab states, who have long relied on American security guarantees, there is no substitute for a U.S. military presence in Iraq.

Several actors could torpedo U.S. attempts to disengage from Iraq, but there is one whose geopolitical interests can help Washington withdraw. Turkey — given its partnership with the United States, security concerns regarding Kurdish separatists based in northern Iraq, energy needs and ability to play the role of regional power — could fill the vacuum created by a U.S. exit. But it will take some time for Ankara to be able to navigate the ethno-sectarian minefield in Iraq and ensure that the current arrangement there holds. The military is prepared to draw down, but the geopolitical circumstances — both within Iraq and in the surrounding region — are critical and are approaching a decisive moment with the March elections.

Shia

The Iraqi Shia have had a complex relationship with the United States going back to before the 2003 American invasion of the country. Most Iraqi Shiite groups worked closely with Washington, first to topple the Baathist regime during the 2003 U.S. invasion and since then to form a new political arrangement in which they have the dominant position. At the same time, many Shiite groups maintain a strong relationship with Iran, which has created problems for U.S. policy on Iraq over the past seven years. And now, as Washington is in the process of drawing down its forces, the politics of the Iraqi Shia in conjunction with their patrons in Tehran are the most important factor that could upset U.S. exit plans. Ahead of the elections, the Iraqi Shia, under the banner of a new, Iran-backed coalition, the Iraqi National Alliance (INA), spearheaded a revived and aggressive debaathification drive as part of their efforts to limit Sunni entry into the political system. The Shia do not want to push so hard as to trigger a renewed insurgency that could undermine the gains they have made in consolidating their political power, so they are selectively barring certain leaders from running in an effort to exploit internal divisions among the Sunnis and prevent a community-wide backlash.

Nonetheless, the Shia are engaged in risky moves that could worsen an already deteriorating security situation. Sunnis largely boycotted the first parliamentary elections held under the new constitution in December 2005. This time, the debaathification measures have the potential of re-igniting sectarian conflict in the country. The situation is so serious that it has prompted the Obama administration to unveil a long-in-the-works contingency plan that would slow the pullout of forces in order to deal with any potential violence. Meanwhile, Iran, through its support of the INA, has tried to forge unity within the ranks of the Shia (otherwise the most internally fractured ethno-sectarian group in Iraq). Shiite Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's nonsectarian State of Law coalition, which his Dawa Party leads, continues to resist assimilation, but despite al-Maliki's attempts to align with Washington, he cannot altogether abandon Shia sectarian interests. Thus, al-Maliki has supported the debaathification campaign despite his nonsectarian political platform. More important, al-Maliki's efforts to remain prime minister likely will mean his having to rely heavily on the INA to forge a coalition government after the March 7 vote. In other words, the U.S. efforts to contain Iran — and thus, the Iraqi Shia — are unlikely to yield any significant dividends.

For this reason, the United States has been supporting Sunnis and nonsectarian forces such as the bloc led by the former interim prime minister, Iyad Allawi. The United States also is leaning on the Kurds to contain the Shia, but that option is not without its problems. The Kurds also support debaathification and are competing with the Sunnis for control over territory in the northern provinces — two issues that work to the advantage of the Shia. Furthermore, the Kurds and the INA's leadership are united in their demand for regional autonomy. The INA seeks to create a federal autonomous zone in the south akin to the Kurdistan region in the north. This is in addition to their ability to enhance their political control over Baghdad. To what extent the Shia will be able to achieve their goals remains unclear, but their efforts have them locked into what appears to be a bitter struggle with the Sunnis, which may easily upset U.S. plans to extricate itself from Iraq.

Sunnis

Iraq's Sunnis have gone from being the biggest opponents of the U.S. move to effect regime change in Baghdad to Washington's key allies in its effort to counter Iran's growing influence in its western neighbor. From the point of view of the Sunnis, the end of the Baathist regime was the end of Sunni historical control of the country — the reason they waged a bloody insurgency. But after years of fighting against the United States, the Sunnis saw their actions were only empowering the Shia and neighboring Iran — as well as al Qaeda, which had hijacked their cause to further its own transnational jihadist agenda.

Agreeing to end the insurgency allowed the Sunnis to roll back the jihadists that threatened them from within and secure a share of power in Baghdad to counter Iran.

Therefore, when U.S. Central Command chief Gen. David Petraeus, then the top U.S. commander in Iraq, approached Sunni tribal leaders to negotiate an end to the insurgency in 2007, they leaped at the opportunity. Agreeing to end the insurgency allowed the Sunnis to roll back the jihadists that threatened them from within and secure a share of power in Baghdad to counter Iran. This group of Sunnis, referred to as Awakening Councils, have become responsible for security in their areas, but because of stonewalling from the Shia-dominated government very few of the 100,000 insurgents-turned-tribal-militia security personnel have been inducted into state security forces. Awakening Councils have made some inroads into the political system through the January 2009 provincial elections.

In the March elections, they expect to seek entry into the parliament, where they will try to claim a Sunni stake in the central government. But here again they face a major challenge from the Shia in the form of the debaathification campaign. The outcome of the March 7 vote will largely determine the course of the ethno-sectarian struggle — whether the political balance will fall apart or keep the shaky stability it has maintained since the end of the Sunni insurgency in 2007. In either case, the future of the Sunnis is intrinsically tied to U.S. withdrawal plans. Sunnis do not want to see the United States leave Iraq, and they can respond to Shia provocations to slow down the U.S. withdrawal.

The United States and its allies among the Sunni Arab states, particularly Saudi Arabia and Turkey, also want to make sure Sunnis represent a sufficient bulwark against Iran. The only way that can happen is if external forces empower the Sunnis enough that they can provide sufficient political leverage against the Shia. A number of factors stand in the way of achieving this objective. There exist stark internal divisions between Sunnis who had been working with the United States to topple the Baathist regime and then were part of the emerging post-Baathist system (such as Vice President Tariq al-Hashimi's former political affiliation, the Iraqi Islamic Party) and those that joined it after the end of the Sunni insurgency (such as the Awakening Councils and the groups that have spun off from them).

Sunni groups also are politically scattered, having aligned themselves with several major political blocs, including those led by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and the former interim prime minister, Iyad Allawi. Moreover, Sunnis are internally divided in their alliances with regional players such as Saudi Arabia, Syria, and Turkey. These differences play a key role in preventing the Sunnis from being able to counter the Shia and their patrons in Tehran. But perhaps the biggest obstacle is that the Sunnis are caught between the Shia to the south and the Kurds to the north, especially with most energy reserves being outside the Sunni heartland of central Iraq. The Shia, being the overwhelming majority in the country, control both the oil-rich south and Baghdad, while Kurdistan is pushing farther south and contesting some areas with the Sunnis. The challenge for the United States is to manage this two-front struggle and help the Sunnis increase their influence. An empowered Sunni bloc will help both with Washington's short-term effort to exit Iraq and in the long term, when the decreased U.S. military presence will afford it less leverage.

Kurds

The Kurds have been the United States' most reliable allies in Iraq, having helped facilitate the 2003 invasion and, later, the U.S. efforts to establish a post-Baathist government. However, there has been friction as Washington tries to keep the balance between the Kurds, Sunnis and Shia while simultaneously catering to Turkish concerns about the growing Kurdish influence in northern Iraq. As the United States prepares to withdraw, Kurdish interests have the potential to upset the timetable.

The Iraqi Kurds are vastly outnumbered by the country's Arab majority, are located in a landlocked area and lack any external patrons. As such, they do not know what their place will be in a post-American Iraq and are on the defensive. A continued U.S. military presence would serve their interests of consolidating and enhancing their regional autonomy, so their ideal situation would involve a permanent U.S. military presence in Iraq. But since a drawdown eventually will come in some form, their best hope is to maintain sufficient internal unity to resist the Sunnis, Shia, Iran, Turkey and Syria, all of whom have an interest in keeping the Kurds boxed in.

The Kurdish areas came together as part of an autonomous federal zone called the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in the post-Baathist political arrangement. Ethnic differences between the Kurds and the Arab majority meant Kurdish areas remained largely free of ethnic militia violence that ravaged the rest of Iraq from 2003 to 2007. With the Obama administration wanting to stick to its military withdrawal timetable, there are serious questions about the relative calm that has prevailed between the Kurds and the Arabs.

Internally, the Kurds have far fewer schisms than those among the Shia and the Sunnis. In recent years, steps have been taken to reconcile the rivalry between the two main Kurdish factions, KRG President Masoud Barzani's Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and Iraqi President Jalal Talabani's Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK). The move resulted in the merger of Peshmerga militias, previously organized along partisan lines, into the unified security force of the KRG. Talabani's declining health — and with it, the political health of the PUK — cast doubts as to how long internal political equilibrium can be maintained.

Control over energy resources could unite the Sunnis and Shia against the Kurds to a certain degree.

In addition to issues of internal schism, there are also security concerns emanating from outside KRG territory — from the Sunnis and the Shia, especially as the three-way ethno-sectarian tensions are heating up in the country. While the Kurds want to prolong the U.S. presence in Iraq, they also have been preparing for the inevitable departure of American troops by exploiting the Shia-Sunni sectarian fault line. That said, they themselves remain bitterly at odds with both the Sunnis, with whom they have territorial disputes and the Shia, who seek to consolidate their nascent domination of the country and are thus at odds with Kurdish ambitions for greater autonomy.

Control over energy resources could unite the Sunnis and Shia against the Kurds to a certain degree: The Sunnis want control of the oil-rich Kirkuk region in the north, while the Shia want to limit the extent to which the Kurds can export energy resources from KRG territory on their own. Each of these issues has existed since the post-Baathist system began to take shape, but the presence of U.S. forces in the country has kept them in check. Given the looming U.S. withdrawal and the elections — which may result in a weakening of the Kurdish share of the parliament, as the Sunnis are not boycotting polls like they did last time — the question is whether the Kurds can continue to avoid major conflicts with the Sunnis and Shia.

Turkey

Turkey, in 2003, was deeply opposed to the U.S. invasion of Iraq due to concerns about the impact it would have on Turkish security. Ankara was especially worries about strengthening Kurdish separatism in northern Iraq. Even during the days of the Baathist regime, Turkey deployed forces in northern Iraq and conducted several ground operations during Saddam Hussein's rule to create a buffer zone against the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), Turkey's main Kurdish rebel group, which has been waging a three-decade-old armed separatist struggle.

Turkey, with a significant Kurdish minority and having to deal with major separatist insurgency, saw the empowerment of the Kurds in northern Iraq as an intolerable threat. For this reason, Turkey refused to open its soil for the deployment of American troops before the invasion of Iraq, which led to years of strained relations with Washington. For years, Turkey could not get involved in the Iraqi issue. Finally, in 2007, Ankara engaged in a unilateral military intervention against Kurdish rebels based in northern Iraq. The move allowed Turkey to insert itself into the struggle in Iraq, and since then, Turkey has gone from being an opponent of the Iraq war to assuming a major role in the country as the United States attempts its withdrawal.

Turkey's involvement in Iraq comes at a time when it is aggressively returning to the world scene and projecting power into the various regions it straddles — the Middle East, the Balkans, the Caucasus, and Central Asia. Given its proximity to the country and immediate interests, Iraq is the starting point for Turkey's geopolitical ascent and where it will devote most of its energy. Of all the places where it is trying to make its influence felt, Iraq offers the least resistance, given the fractured nature of the post-Baathist republic. While the Kurdish threat drives both Turkish foreign and domestic policy, Iraq also represents an alternative energy source that could reduce Turkey's dependence on Russia and Azerbaijan, especially given the influx of global energy firms into oil field development work.

The historical links between Turkey and Iraq (the latter having been a province of the Ottoman Empire) provide Turkey with the experience to become a key player in its southeastern Arab neighbor. That said, it will be competing with an assertive Iran, which not only has had a head start in creating a sphere of influence in Iraq but also has far more internal allies given the country's ethno-sectarian makeup. Ultimately, however, Turkey has more expansionary potential than Iran and likely will be able to contain Tehran's moves in Iraq. In this effort, Turkey has the backing of the region's Sunni Arab states, which are leaning on Ankara to counter the threat they face from an aggressive Iran. More significant, the United States is depending on Turkey — a close ally whose global rise is not seen yet by the United States as a threat to its interests — to manage not just Iraq but the wider Middle East as it seeks to militarily disengage from the Islamic world.

In other words, there is a convergence of American and Turkish interests in Iraq, which will serve to facilitate the U.S. military pullout. That said, there are a number of factors that could complicate matters. The Iraqi Kurds do not want to see Turkey limit the sweeping autonomy they have enjoyed within Iraq. Since the Turks and the Iraqi Kurds are both U.S. allies, Washington will need to find the right balance to where neither Kurdish nor Turkish action upsets the American withdrawal timetable. Also, Turkey has shed the simple pro-Western foreign policy it maintained during the Cold War and adopted a more nuanced one. Ankara also remains upset that it is not getting substantive cooperation from Washington against Iraq-based Kurdish rebels. Turkey will work to facilitate a U.S. military exit from Iraq, especially since it will allow Turkey to emerge as a major player in the country. But the United States needs to placate Iraqi Kurds to maintain the domestic peace, which could conflict with Turkish interests and complicate matters with Ankara.

Arab States

Despite problems Arab nations had with Saddam Hussein, his regime, military and territory long served as a buffer between the Arab and Persian worlds. For nearly the entirety of Iran's existence as an Islamic republic before the 1991 Gulf War, it was locked in a devastating war with Iraq. Despite the profound weakening of Iraq that came with the devastation of its military in 1991 and the country's subsequent international isolation, it was not until the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 that Tehran really began its ascent to regional prominence.

Even the Kuwaitis and Syrians, who were happy to see Saddam himself go, did not want the balance between Iraq and Iran upset.

The Arab states were adamantly opposed to the toppling of the regime. Even the Kuwaitis and Syrians, who were happy to see Saddam himself go, did not want the balance between Iraq and Iran upset. Initial back-channel talks between Washington and Tehran over the fate of post-Saddam Baghdad were disconcerting to the Arab states, but these broke up as the United States moved to incorporate Sunnis and Kurds into a nascent Iraqi government that the Iranians wanted to be dominated by the Shia.

Quickly after the fall of the Baathist regime, Washington and Tehran became increasingly antagonistic, which suited the Arab states. They took comfort from the enormous American military presence in Mesopotamia that served to block and distract Iranian attention and efforts. The Sunni Arab states, led by Saudi Arabia, had seen how Iran, working with Syria, had gained tremendous influence in Lebanon beginning in the 1980s. With Iraq now falling into the Iranian orbit and Iran expanding its influence in Yemen, Persian regional power has become a central issue. With the United States now engaged in drawing down its presence in Iraq and little meaningful action being taken to halt Iran's nuclear progress, the Arab nightmare of a dominant Persia is becoming a potential reality.

That said, the United States is not leaving Iraq completely. Some 50,000 non-combat troops will still be there in late 2010 even under the most optimistic scenarios, and future agreements could keep an American military presence in the country long after the current Status of Forces Agreement requires they be withdrawn. But for the Arab states, the U.S. military disposition in Iraq is a temporary solution to a longer-term and deeper problem. During the height of the violence in Iraq, Sunni powers in the region supported Sunni insurgents to ensure the Shia did not become completely dominant. These will be the first parliamentary elections of the post-Saddam era to see significant Sunni participation, as most boycotted the 2005 polls.

While this will likely mean an increase in Sunni representation, the Arab states are aware that post-Saddam Iraq has been fundamentally altered; Shiites now dominate Baghdad and the south. This has been a demographic reality for centuries, but the Shia have never actually held power. The sectarian shift in Baghdad is merely one reflection of the immense and broad spectrum of leverage Iran has in Iraq now that Saddam's regime is no longer at the helm. The long-term question for Arab states is what can be done to keep Iran at bay. The American drawdown in Iraq is a sign of things to come, as Arab states are increasingly left to their own devices to manage Persian power in the region.

Washington will continue to use its financial and military power to influence events in the region, but it will not soon re-engage military forces on the scale of the 2007 surge. The Arab states have no plan of their own to deal with a rising Iran, but it is clear that much more will be necessary to counter Persian influence in Iraq. Militarily, they will continue to rely on the American security umbrella in the Persian Gulf. At the same time, they will align with Turkey to try and ensure that Iranian power is more or less contained to Iraq. The Arabs also are limited in terms of options by the fact that they also do not wish to see war in the Persian Gulf, as it would be a far more immediate threat to their own national self-interest. In essence, the Arab states will go with an international consensus and avoid taking a too-belligerent stance, lest they end up losing out even further.

Iran

Iran was delighted to see the United States invade Iraq in 2003 and in a complex and covert manner facilitated the American objective to oust the Baathist regime from power. While Tehran is concerned that the U.S. withdrawal from Iraq could free up resources to allow it a military strike against the Islamic republic over its nuclear program, it also sees the United States leaving behind a vacuum in Iraq that Iran can fill to consolidate its influence in its western neighbor.

For Iran, Iraq is both a threat and an opportunity: a threat because invasions have historically been launched from Iraq, an opportunity because when Iraq has been under Persian control, it has served as a launch pad for Iranian regional ambitions. For this reason, Iran worked with the United States in the latter's efforts to oust the Baathist regime, with which the Islamic republic had fought a long and costly war during the 1980s. Furthermore, Iraq's Shia majority, a core ally of Washington in the move to effect regime change, is politically dominated by entities closely aligned with Iran. The Iranians thus saw a double benefit in the U.S. invasion of Iraq in that it would rid Iran of a major foe, and likely replace it with a friendly regime.

It was in the second step that U.S.-Iranian interests sharply diverged. Not wanting to rely too heavily on the Shia and thus empower Iran, the United States sought to bring the Sunnis, many of whom were former Baathists, back into the Iraqi political equation and exploit the internal divisions among the Shia to undermine Iranian influence. The result has been a long struggle between Washington and Tehran over Baghdad — one that continues even as the United States works toward withdrawal.

To ensure its own dominance in Iraq, Iran has several levers. It enjoys a close alliance with most major Shiite political parties, equally close ties with Shiite Islamist militant groups, solid religious associations in the Shiite south as well as long-standing ties to a much wider spectrum of Kurdish and even Sunni (political and militant) actors. Its main lever is the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI) led by Ammar al-Hakim and the Iraqi National Alliance (INA). The INA, founded in August 2009, is essentially an outgrowth of the United Iraqi Alliance (itself formed ahead of the 2005 parliamentary elections). The INA encompasses the ISCI and the movement of radical Iraqi Shiite leader Muqtada al-Sadr — the two largest and rival Shia sectarian trends in the country. Al-Sadr has ties to Iran, having spent most of the latter half of the decade in the country. Iran was even able to rein in al-Sadr when it served their purposes. Similarly, a particularly deadly wave of improvised explosive devices known as explosively formed projectiles that plagued U.S. troops at the height of violence in Iraq were traced back to Iranian sources.

In the long run, Tehran seeks a stable but not overly strong Baghdad to which it is closely allied.

Though the violence has died down in recent years, Iran maintains its militant assets and its ability to send weapons into the country that are capable of complicating American efforts. But short-term dynamics and considerations complicate the way Iran moves toward its long-term goal of consolidating control over Iraq. The sooner American troops withdraw, the sooner Tehran can further solidify its position in Baghdad, but the United States' presence in Iraq provides Iran leverage as a deterrent to American air strikes on its nuclear program. In other words, while Iran wants U.S. forces removed from Iraq as it would pave the way for Tehran to better project power in the region, it also does not want Washington to have a freer hand in taking military action against it. Also, though U.S. troops are no longer as central to the security situation in Iraq as they were in 2006, they potentially would be the only force capable of re-establishing stability if Iran were to re-ignite sectarian violence. This is not something Iran necessarily wants to do, but just like a self-defeating attempt to close the Strait of Hormuz, which would rob Iran of refined gasoline imports upon which it is dependent, it makes for a persuasive deterrent.

In the long run, Tehran seeks a stable but not overly strong Baghdad to which it is closely allied. Iran also hopes for long-term dominance of all Iraq — more than just Baghdad and the Shiite south — which means acting for long-term political stability in the country. For this to occur, Sunnis and Kurds must be incorporated into the government in a stable and sustainable, if weak, manner. In doing so, it reduces the chances of Sunni militancy re-emerging, which would both undermine longer-term stability and open up new opportunities for an outside power such as the United States to manipulate the domestic situation in Iraq by proxy. Iran also has a number of challenges beyond outmaneuvering Washington in Baghdad. Turkey is becoming increasingly comfortable with returning to its former role as the dominant power in the region. Ankara will be a far more lasting and persistent competitor than the United States in the Middle East in general, and Iraq in particular. And Iraq is its own actor.

Right now, it is hobbled by an internal sectarian power struggle, but it also has immense underexploited oil reserves. Baghdad aspires to Russian and even Saudi levels of energy exports that would dramatically enrich and empower Iraq, both in absolute terms and compared to Iran. So for Iran, the American drawdown has both short-term downsides and long-term benefits. But ultimately, it is only one chapter in a struggle for dominance in Iraq and the wider region that will continue to be waged for the rest of the decade and beyond.

U.S. Military

Some 96,000 U.S. servicemen and women remain on the ground in Iraq as of the publication of this report. All other countries and the U.S. Marine Corps (save a few trainers, advisers and a Marine Security Guard detachment at the embassy) already have completed their withdrawals. Multinational Forces-Iraq (MNF-I, the multilateral aegis under which the surge was conducted) has been replaced with the national designation U.S. Forces-Iraq (USF-I). At the height of the 2007 surge, some 170,000 U.S. troops were on the ground in Iraq, and it has taken about a year and a half to get to the current level of 96,000. Further withdrawals are on hold until the elections. The current troop level is expected to remain steady for 60 days after the elections. USF-I efforts to support Iraqi security forces continue apace, with the main focus on training, advising and assisting the Iraqi army, Iraqi police and Iraqi border police. Some combined patrols are still being conducted to facilitate those goals, but day-to-day responsibility for security is now largely in the hands of the Iraqis. And while U.S. troops also are carrying out exercises of their own, many are spending the vast majority of their time in forward operating bases.

If all goes as planned — which is anything but assured — half of the troops dedicated to USF-I are slated to be withdrawn at a rapid rate starting in mid-May in order to meet the deadline for all "combat" troops to out of the country by the end of August. This means that more than 13,000 troops (some three brigade combat team equivalents) must be withdrawn each month once the drawdown begins in earnest. The sheer logistical challenge of parsing through all the vehicles, equipment and military hardware — as well as handing over facilities to the Iraqis — is difficult to overstate. But the U.S. military is a peerless logistical force, and moving mountains of materiel is what it does. There are practical limitations in terms of the capacity of facilities in Kuwait that will affect the drawdown rate, such as wash racks for vehicles to be cleaned before being loaded aboard ships. But assuming favorable circumstances following the elections, the U.S. military believes that reduction to around 50,000 troops — with all "combat" troops withdrawn — is achievable by the end of August, in accordance with the current deadline.

At that point, all U.S. troops will be focused on training, advising, assisting and providing other support functions. However, it is worth noting that many of the units carrying out training and advisory functions are retooled combat formations, and others will be ensuring the security of U.S. forces and facilities. So the idea that there will be no American combat power in Iraq in September is a bit of a fallacy. But the U.S. presence in Iraq already is less than it has been since the initial invasion, and at some point in the coming months there will be more U.S. troops in Afghanistan than in Iraq. This shift is of central importance to U.S. ground combat power. There is some room for flexibility; if the situation calls for it, the units currently in Iraq can have their deployments extended. But troop deployment and manpower metrics for the surge in Afghanistan to some extent depend on not having to sustain more than 50,000 troops in Iraq in the back half of 2010 and beyond.

Thus, the application of ground combat power in Iraq and Afghanistan are interdependent. The United States is attempting to roll back its military commitment to Iraq substantially, not only to extract itself from Iraq but also to better focus its resources and efforts in Afghanistan. It has done all it can militarily and is essentially waiting out the durability of domestic political circumstances in the country during and following the elections. In other words, the U.S. military is no longer the keeper of the peace in Iraq. The elections and following transition of power will be a test of whether the Iraqis can keep the peace themselves, and the U.S. withdrawal may depend on how the Iraqis answer that test.

 

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