Headlines and heated rhetoric to the contrary, the withdrawal of American combat troops from Iraq has never been a question of whether, but rather of when and, more important, how. The task facing President-elect Barack Obama is accomplishing the drawdown without reigniting the war and — if possible — in a way that helps Iraq move toward reconciliation.
The “when” question was answered at least provisionally this month by the Dec. 31, 2011, deadline set in the accord reached between the United States and Iraqi governments (and is scheduled to come up for a vote in the Iraqi Parliament next week). The answer to the all-important “how” question involves both a security and a political aspect.
The security component is the easier piece, if anything in Iraq can ever be called easy. Two models are already being used in the transition to a non-combat American presence, which has proceeded further than most Americans are aware. In the southern provinces of Iraq, the local governors and Iraqi security forces have assumed primary responsibility for security. They are backed up by American Special Forces and Provincial Reconstruction Teams, which work closely together in an unheralded civilian-military partnership after years of complaints that American civilians were not doing their part.
These 12-member Special Forces teams and civilian reconstruction groups form a support network for the Iraqi government. They help local officials, mentor the security forces and serve as an early warning system. If the Iraqi forces need help, the Special Forces can call in airpower, medevac helicopters or surveillance drones from a unit stationed at the Tallil air base, the main hub in the south.
In other areas of Iraq that have endured greater violence, a more robust “transition task force” is being used. This battalion-based model of some 1,200 was pioneered by Col. Dominic Caraccilo of the 101st Airborne Division in an area south of Baghdad that was once called the “triangle of death” because of the ferocity of the Sunni insurgents who were dug in there. His brigade left Iraq this month after turning over 18 of its 23 patrol bases to the Iraqi Army.
The transition task force that took its place is based at Mahmudiya; it consists primarily of trainers and advisers who mentor the brigade of the 17th Iraqi Army Division, which has assumed primary responsibility for security there. In addition, the task force can aid the Iraqi Army with air support, route clearance vehicles and artillery and mortar fire.
These two models are workable formulas, but they need a secure logistical lifeline. Small units are inherently at greater risk than large units, and as the drawdown proceeds, their means to protect themselves, move and communicate must be maintained, increasingly by Iraqi support groups rather than American ones.
The far bigger challenge is on the political front, but the answer is straightforward. The United States cannot guarantee political reconciliation in Iraq, but to walk away and let the war erupt anew after so much blood and treasure has been invested would be tragic. In return for assistance to the Iraqi government, the Obama administration must insist on certain quid pro quos, something the Bush administration failed to do.
The most critical condition on American aid is that the former Sunni insurgents who have taken up arms on the government side, known as the Sons of Iraq, should be incorporated into the security forces and given jobs. Second is to restore services in those areas that have been deliberately deprived of them. Third is an all-out effort to resettle the more than four million displaced Iraqis in their own homes or homes where they wish to live.
The fourth condition is for the all-important December 2009 national elections to be held under the same open-list rules that will govern January’s provincial elections. Many pundits have dismissed the importance of elections, pointing to the flawed Iraqi vote of 2005, in which voters had to choose between closed lists of candidates put together by parties and which were boycotted by most Sunnis. However, open-list elections will allow new candidates and parties to compete and win; Sunnis overwhelmingly intend to vote this time; and Iraqis across the political spectrum are tired of sectarianism.
The broadly representative government that will result from the elections will be far better positioned to decide on the level and type of American support that Iraq needs. Iraqis look warily over their shoulder at Iran, and on my latest trip to Iraq, in September, many whom I talked to expressed concern that Iran would move into the political vacuum if the United States turns away.
While the new status of forces accord appears to close the door on any future American training, advisory or other military support after December 2011, this is contrary to a November 2007 joint declaration by Washington and Baghdad and is unlikely to be the final word. The other day I sent an e-mail message to Iraq’s national security adviser, Mowaffak al-Rubaie, asking for clarification on that point. His answer clearly left the door open: “It is too early to decide. We will cross that bridge when we get to it.”
Linda Robinson, the author of Tell Me How This Ends: Gen. David Petraeus and the Search for a Way Out of Iraq.