Sunday, February 13, 2011

Max Boot: US needs to stay in Iraq. Could it happen?

Boot's latest op-ed  (in the LA Times) makes the point that Iraq's future is hardly assured; and that American media and the American public have turned the page.  Boot is correct, on both counts.  But I can't imagine that the US will back off the current timetable, which slates all US troops to be out of there by end of this year. Why?
  • The US can't afford it.  With all the money swirling into the black hole that is Afghanistan, with US troops increasingly stressed by multiple tours and over-exposure to battlefield trauma, and with a president who has insisted steadfastly that the US will leave, the American public will not stand for it.
  • Iraqis won't stand for it.  Whatever whisperings may be going on behind the scenes, the Maliki government has likewise been steadfastly, and publicly, insisting that US troops are going to be out by year's end.  Muqtada al-Sadr, the "firebrand cleric" whose Shii religious party is a major component of Maliki's coalition, has made it clear that he will accept no other outcome - and he has a devoted, well-armed militia (the Promised Day brigade, a carry-over from the Mahdi Army that took a toll on US forces in Najaf in 2004 and in Baghdad during the Surge) that he can call out if US forces extend their stay.  (And it's probably safe to assume that, if that were to happen, Iran would funnel arms and supplies to Sadr's militia - and, for that matter, to any other Shii insurgent force - or even a Sunni force if Iran believed they could keep them in check down the line - that wanted to step up to resist the Americans.

There may be a wild card here, though - the Kurds.  There still exists a very volatile fault-line in Iraq's north and northeast, in the ethnically mixed Arab-Kurd-Turkmen region along the frontier between the region controlled by the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) and the Arab-dominated central government in Baghdad.  The only US forces still on a largely combat footing in Iraq are those who are teaming with Arab-Iraqi troops and Kurdish peshmerga troops to patrol the region - the idea being that the presence of the US troops will help Arabs and Kurds learn to work together.  The success has been, at best, mixed.

Now the clock is winding down. When US forces are out, it's likely that this mixed-ethnic region will heat up. Given the long history of attacks and atrocities they've suffered at the hands of predominantly Arab regimes in Baghdad (going back to the days of the British mandate and Hashemite monarchy), and their sense of friendship and cooperation with the US after the Desert Storm war (when the US sent food to Kurdish civilian refugees, maintained no-fly zones over Kurdish territory, and helped foster the development of an autonomous KRG years before the 2003 invasion), why should anyone be surprised if the KRG's leaders ask the US to station forces on Kurdish territory even after the 31 Dec. 2011 deadline?

This would signal, of course, the end of any dream of a unitary, Arab-Kurd Iraq - something that the US has generally said, over the years, that it wanted to see.  But, as I said, given the deep, long-felt distrust between Iraq's Arabs and Kurds, if the KRG decides, in the wake of the US final pull-out, that the Baghdad government is more threat than partner, it already has strong working ties with the US - and, for that matter, with Israel.  And more than any dream of a unitary Iraq, what Kurds prize most is their autonomy - and their survival.

A lot would hinge, of course, on Obama's willingness to leave some US forces in Iraqi Kurdistan.  But if such a scenario were to unfold, you can surely expect John McCain and Lindsey Graham, as well as the soon-to-be-exiting Jon Kyl and Joe Lieberman, to lead the chorus singing hosanna's for the brave Kurds.

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