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Feb. 25 2010 - 9:08 am | 206 views | 2 recommendations | 4 comments

Should Obama keep our troops in Iraq?

The great Tom Ricks has an Op-Ed in the NYT that’s worth reading. Mainly, he suggests that if the political instability and violence continues in Iraq(almost certain) Obama should keep between 30-50,000 U.S. troops there for many years to come.

In one sense, it’s a bit of a straw man argument. I’ve been reporting on this for months, and almost no one thinks that the U.S. will ever get down to zero troops in Iraq by the end of 2011, the date called for in the Status of Forces agreement. That was never really in the cards. Already, U.S. and Iraqi officials are thinking about what kind of military presence the U.S. will have there after 2011. Okay, there will be no “combat troops,” just troops, and they won’t be in the Iraq of the Iraq War and Operation Iraqi Freedom–they’ll just be hanging out in the new, post-war, peaceful Iraq.  In other words, despite Obama’s promises to bring everyone home, there already was a very high likelihood of having troops in Iraq for years to come. It’s just that we (and by this I mean the USG) were planning not to count these troops as troops.

But Ricks is calling for more than just a U.S. force garrisoned in Iraq, it seems. This is a debate worth having, and I applaud him for getting it out in the open. It appears he wants the U.S. to keep up a more active role in maintaining the shaky semi-stability in the country. This goes along with a school of thought in Beltway foreign policy circles–while the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad really wants to transition to a more normal relationship with Iraq, other think tankers and the like are advocating essentially for the State Department to start doing what the military had been doing(and using the military to do so.)

The central argument for staying longer in Iraq is the fear that by leaving “everything”–ie, gains in security that the U.S. helped produce–will unravel. This might remind you of the central argument for the Surge, which was that everything was unraveled, and if we left, things would unravel further. Critics of the Surge pointed out–and it turns out correctly!–that by sending thousands of more troops rather than continuing to withdraw them, we’d end up in Iraq forever and ever. There’s never a good time to withdraw, or leave.

There are top people in the U.S. military who really don’t want to let go of Iraq. Though the rhetoric is that Iraq is a “sovereign” country, there’s a a real fear that once the paternal hand of the Americans are off the shoulders of the Iraqis (remember the training wheels metaphor?) things could get really, really, bad again. That would mean that the U.S. military’s sacrifices had been a waste, and, even worse, those damn critics could make the argument that we didn’t “win” in Iraq.

Ricks ends on the popular Kilcullen quote, which Obama picked up as a talking point during his presidential campaign. Ricks writes: “Yet, to echo the counterinsurgency expert David Kilcullen, just because you invade a country stupidly doesn’t mean you should leave it stupidly.” So, if you never leave, there’s no worry of acting stupid. Except that you never leave. Which seems kind of stupid, too.


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  1. collapse expand

    Strategic necessity is one thing- our ability to pay these bills the Neo-conservatives ran up is another. It’s either we can’t afford to leave, or we can’t afford to stay- not both.

  2. collapse expand

    Godd luck with bringing our people home. Eisenhower also planned on quick withdrawal of US troops in South Korea once the hostilities ended. That was in 1952 and we still have 28,500 soldiers over there.

  3. collapse expand

    I don’t believe for second that we will ever be out of Iraq. By the time 2011 comes around some argument well be made to stay. Like the whole region depends on a very stable Iraq. Especially with a nuclear Iran is very close. Just saying.

    Add in the US has yet to leave an area (Germany, Japan, South Korea etc) when it has been involved in some war or other. The only country where there is an exception is the Philipines. Then the US was asked to leave. Our history of leaving a war zone former or not is exceedingly poor.

    Iraq will be no exception. Republicans will argue we are still needed there to complete the “mission”. Democrats will go along with the President’s arguement of stablization before departing Iraq.

    I bet no mention of nation building will be made by the Dems. That would be like waving a red flag in front of a bull. Liberals will revolt and the President would have to dance big time.

    Bottom line the US will be in Iraq for decades as some sort of support, and or stabilization crew for the region. Why not it is how we roll.

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    About Me

    I'm the author of "I Lost My Love in Baghdad: A Modern War Story" and a regular contributor to GQ. Previously, I was the Baghdad correspondent for Newsweek magazine. My work has appeared in The Washington Post, The Daily Beast, Slate, Salon, Foreign Policy, the L.A. Times, and other publications of repute. This blog will focus on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as other newsy foreign-ish things.

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