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Oct 7, 2011 | 04:22 GMT

4 mins read

Weighing an Extended U.S. Presence in Iraqi Kurdistan

It can be difficult to separate the important from unimportant on any given day. Reflections mean to do exactly that — by thinking about what happened today, we can consider what might happen tomorrow.
Kurdish officials in northern Iraq on Wednesday raised the possibility of some 1,500 U.S. troops remaining stationed at the airport in the contested city of Kirkuk past January 2012, the deadline for all American military forces to withdraw from the country under the current U.S.-Iraq Status of Forces Agreement. What is at stake for Washington is not the fate of Iraqi Kurds, but the most powerful means of leverage the United States has left in Iraq: its military presence. Washington has been pushing for an agreement that would keep U.S. troops in Iraq past the deadline as a way to counter Iran, and some Iraqi factions would also like to see an extended U.S. presence for their own reasons — especially the Kurds, who see the prospect of U.S. troops in northern Iraq as a way to ensure Kurdish autonomy. However, other Iraqi factions, many of which are influenced by Iran, have thus far been successful in preventing any such accord from being struck. Given the fractious nature of Iraqi politics and the logistical requirements for removing forces by the deadline, the longer these factions delay an extension, the more difficult it becomes to enact one. What is at stake for Washington is not the fate of Iraqi Kurds, but the most powerful means of leverage the United States has left in Iraq: its military presence. The U.S. State Department plans to maintain the largest embassy in the world in Baghdad and the Iraqi government will continue to accept American aid and military hardware (as well as the contractors necessary to maintain it). But neither the diplomatic presence nor U.S. aid and equipment can provide the deterrent to Iran that military forces stationed in the country could, and the removal of troops will inevitably erode U.S. influence, along with situational awareness and intelligence-gathering capabilities. In addition, the advisory and assistance support the U.S. military has provided its Iraqi counterpart in areas of planning, logistics, intelligence and air sovereignty (among others) will be denied, meaning that Iraqi security forces will be somewhat less capable, particularly in the near term. By invading in 2003, the United States destroyed the Iranian-Iraqi balance of power that had defined American foreign policy in the region since the fall of the Shah in 1979, and the Iraq of today is not capable of containing and counterbalancing Iran. This is not a problem that can be solved by military force, or at least by the military force the United States is willing to keep committed to the region. Because of this, a political accommodation and understanding with Iran is necessary. The question is about the terms of that accommodation and understanding, and at the moment the U.S. negotiating position is weak. Some sort of residual American military presence in Iraq is ultimately intended to buy time for the American negotiating position to improve while attempting to provide allies and partners in the region like Saudi Arabia enough reason to stay with Washington instead of reaching an independent accommodation with Iran on Iranian terms. This is the context in which any residual American military presence in Iraq must be understood. That presence — however it is officially described — could be composed, equipped and positioned to serve as a credible conventional blocking force in coordination with U.S. forces stationed in Kuwait (though this looks increasingly unlikely). Alternately, the remaining U.S. forces could take the shape of a training mission with very limited applicability to the larger strategic problem (particularly if it is limited to 1,500 troops in Kirkuk). Either way, it will be vulnerable to attack by Iranian proxies while failing to address the real means of Iranian power in the region — its extensive network of covert operatives that are able to move quite freely across the Persian Gulf region. The United States wants to prevent Tehran from filling the power vacuum that would be left in Iraq after the withdrawal until other means of leverage can be brought to bear against Iran — ideally when most U.S. and allied forces have also withdrawn from Afghanistan and the global economy is not being held hostage to skirmishes in the Strait of Hormuz. A residual military presence can be can be composed in ways that make it better- or worse-suited to deal with this, but it cannot solve the underlying problem of Iranian power in the region.

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