Last night in his quasi-State of the Union speech, President Obama hinted that he would soon provide a “new way forward in Iraq that leaves Iraq to its people and responsibly ends this war.” Reports have already leaked out that President Obama plans to remove all combat troops from Iraq by August of next year, a compromise between the desires of the military brass and his campaign promise of 16 months.
From the very beginning, we have been pushing for a timeline that is quicker than 16 months. The Center for American Progress’ report, How to Redeploy, outlines how a safe and responsible withdrawal can and should happen in no more than ten months. While the timeline Obama is planning to announce is not as swift as we would like to see, a bigger concern is that the plan would leave behind a “residual force” of 30,000 – 50,000 troops.
The residual force would include intelligence and surveillance specialists and their equipment, including unmanned aircraft, according to two administration officials and a Pentagon official who spoke on condition of anonymity because the plan has not been made public.
The complete withdrawal of American forces will take place by December 2011, the period by which the U.S. agreed with Iraq to remove all troops.
We knew throughout the campaign that most of the presidential candidates who supported withdrawal from Iraq supported a residual force, and it was a plan we mobilized against through our No Soldier Left Behind campaign. Most people I’ve talked to, including some congressional staff, don’t realize the full scale of the force that would be left behind. When they hear President Obama talk about withdrawal, they think the vast majority of troops are coming home. The withdrawal of combat troops, while a significant step that we should celebrate, is not a complete withdrawal.
The Iraqi people have made it clear that they want the US to withdraw, and they will have an opportunity to vote on the Status of Forces Agreement, which requires US withdrawal by the end of 2011 or sooner, in June. Keeping 50,000 troops in Iraq is not going to lessen the resentment in Iraq caused by the presence of a foreign occupying force. Military adviser Stephen Biddle referred to a residual force as “the worst of both worlds,” not being a large enough force for a full-on military strategy, but unable to avoid engaging in combat and serving as targets for violence. If we want to help create stability in Iraq, we need to use diplomacy and aid, and it will require the political capital gained by announcing and pursuing a full withdrawal of US troops.
We shouldn’t discount the significance of starting a withdrawal of troops from Iraq. It something that all of us having been working for tirelessly since 2003, and it wouldn’t have been possible without the dedication of activists like our committed Peace Action West supporters. While we celebrate the victory brought about by our sustained, powerful grassroots action, we must also continue to push the Obama administration and Congress to go farther than they are ready to go, and completely withdraw every last soldier from Iraq.