As the consensus builds for some kind of exit strategy from Iraq, Peace Action West has been working to draw more attention to the issue of residual forces. With the exception of a few bills that have not been voted on in Congress, most proposed withdrawal plans allow troops for âlimited missionsâ including embassy protection, counter-terrorism and training. Analysts have said that this would potentially amount to tens of thousands of troops after âwithdrawalâ has been completed. We want to make sure that momentum continues, and that our security and the security of the Iraqi people will not be served by maintaining a quarter- or half-occupation.
It is helpful that the media is starting to draw attention to this issue. Last week the Wall Street Journal published an article highlighting the wiggle room in the proposed withdrawal plans of Democratic candidates Obama and Clinton (subscription required):
Obama foreign-policy adviser Dennis McDonough says the Democratic front-runner wants the residual U.S. forces to focus on counterterrorism — largely directed against al Qaeda in Iraq, the homegrown extremist organization responsible for the deaths of thousands of Iraqi civilians — and protecting the enormous U.S. embassy in Baghdad.
Mr. McDonough says Sen. Obama is open to leaving additional forces in Iraq to train and advise Iraqi security forces, but only if the Iraqi government takes steps to reconcile the country’s sectarian groups. Absent such progress, Sen. Obama would halt the training effort, he said. "Our support wouldn’t be open-ended," said Bill Burton, a spokesman for Sen. Obama.
Mr. McDonough declined to say how many troops Sen. Obama hoped to have in Iraq after the initial 16 months of withdrawals. But another senior adviser said that Mr. Obama was comfortable with a long-term U.S. troop presence of around five brigades, which — depending on the numbers of support troops and other personnel — would likely leave around 35,000 troops in Iraq.
Sen. Clinton takes a similar approach and promises to begin withdrawing combat troops within 60 days of assuming the presidency. Lee Feinstein, the Clinton campaign’s national security director, says "the principal focus" of the remaining U.S. forces will be fighting al-Qaeda in Iraq.
U.S. forces would no longer patrol Iraqi streets and towns or seek to prevent sectarian strife between Shiites and Sunnis, or between Arabs and Kurds, he said. "Our troops will not be there to patrol a civil war," Mr. Feinstein said.
Mr. Feinstein declined to say how many troops Sen. Clinton wanted to leave in Iraq, but said that they would be there "in sufficient numbers to carry out the more limited set of missions."
The positions held by Obama and Clinton are obviously far superior to that of Republican candidate Sen. John McCain, who infamously said heâd be happy to keep troops in Iraq for 100 years. It is significant that the major Democratic candidates are running strongly against the war and the issue will continue to have salience in the debates. However, officers who have served in Iraq, as well as one of General Petraeusâ military advisors, have refuted the viability of a residual force. The continuing occupation of Iraq by US troops will continue to inflame tensions in Iraq and undermine the goals of withdrawal. The US must fully shift to a political solution, engaging Iraqâs neighbors and providing funding for reconstruction in Iraq. The presidential election offers us an opportunity to promote the idea of a complete withdrawal, and Peace Action West will be working to get that message to the forefront this year.