Feb 27, 2009
Barack Obama said directly that he would be announcing "a way forward
in Iraq that leaves Iraq to its people and responsibly ends this war."
As far as it goes, that sounds good. This is an indication that
President Obama is largely keeping to his campaign promises, and that's
a hopeful sign, reflecting the power of the anti-war consensus in this
If this plan were actually a first step towards the unequivocal goal
of a complete end to the U.S. occupation of Iraq, it would be better
than good, it would be fabulous. But that would mean this withdrawal
would be the first step towards a complete withdrawal of all U.S.
troops, pulling out of all the 150,000+ U.S.-paid foreign mercenaries
and contractors, closing all the U.S. military bases, and ending all
U.S. efforts to control Iraqi oil.
So far that is not on Obama's agenda.
The troop withdrawal as planned would leave behind as many as 50,000
U.S. troops. That's an awful lot. Even Speaker of the House Nancy
Pelosi thinks that may be too much. She told Rachel Maddow, "I don't
know what the justification is for 50,000, at the present...I would
think a third of that, maybe 20,000, a little more than a third, 15,000
Those troops won't include officially designated "combat" troops.
But those tens of thousands of troops will still be occupying Iraq.
Doing what? Very likely, just what combat troops do - they would walk
and talk and bomb and shoot like combat troops, but they'd be called
something else. The New York Times spelled it out last
December: describing how military planners believe Obama's goal of
pulling out combat troops "could be accomplished at least in part by
re-labeling some units, so that those currently counted as combat
troops could be 're-missioned,' their efforts redefined as training and
support for the Iraqis." That would mean a retreat to the lies and
deception that characterized this war during Bush years - something
President Obama promised to leave behind. It would also mean military
resistance in Iraq would continue, leading to more Iraqi and U.S.
Further, the U.S. agreement with Iraq calls for all U.S. forces to
be out of Iraq by the end of December 2011. President Obama's
announcement later this week may even reflect something like this goal
too. But. The agreement can be changed. Retired General Barry McCaffrey
wrote an internal report for the Pentagon after a trip to Iraq last
year, saying, "We should assume that the Iraqi government will
eventually ask us to stay beyond 2011 with a residual force of
trainers, counterterrorist capabilities, logistics, and air power." My
estimate? Perhaps a force of 20,000 to 40,000 troops.
And what if the reduction in ground troops is answered with an
escalation of U.S. air power? The U.S. appears to be planning to
control the skies over Iraq for years to come. That means even more
Iraqi civilians being killed by the U.S. military. We need the withdraw
all air and naval forces too - something the SOFA agreement mentions,
but we have yet to hear anything from the Obama administration. The
U.S. has been conducting continuous overflights and regular bombing of
Iraq since January 1991 - isn't 18 years of air war enough?
The U.S.-Iraq agreement (which was ratified by the Iraqi parliament
but never brought to the U.S. Senate for ratification, as mandated by
the Constitution) also requires that a national referendum be held in
Iraq during the summer of 2009 to approve or reject the timetable. It
is certainly possible that - if the referendum is held at all - a vast
majority of Iraqis would call for an even earlier timeline, saying that
two-and-a-half more years of occupation is too long. And it seems a
real long-shot to imagine that the U.S. - despite the Obama
administration's commitment to diplomacy over force - would agree to
abide by the popular will of the Iraqi people and pull out the troops
The military hasn't been transformed with the election of President
Obama. He is the commander in chief, but he has made clear his
intention to listen to his military advisers (they pushed for the
19-month rather than 16-month withdrawal timeline). The oil companies
and powerful contractors whose CEOs and stockholders have made billion
dollar killings on Iraq contracts have not been transformed. Obama is
president and has promised transparency in the contracting process, but
he hasn't promised to bring home all the mercenaries and contractors.
Mercenaries and Contractors
Ending the U.S. occupation means ending all U.S. funding for the
giant contractors - Dyncorp, Bechtel, Blackwater - that serve as
out-sourced private unaccountable components of the U.S. military. The
contractor companies - and the mercenaries they hire - were part of
what led to Abu Ghraib. (Blackwater's recent name change to "Xe" should
not allow its role in killing Iraqi civilians to be forgotten.) Even as
some troops may be withdrawn, we will need to mobilize for
congressional hearings, independent investigations, and more on the
human rights violations and misuse of taxpayer funds by the war
profiteers who run these companies. President Obama's decision to close
the Guantanamo prison shows his awareness of severity of the crimes
committed there. Ending the funding of the contractors who carried out
so many of those crimes should be a logical next step.
U.S. Military Bases
We've heard how long it will likely take to evacuate each of the 50+
U.S. military bases in Iraq (6 weeks for the small ones, 18 months for
the biggest) but we haven't heard any indication, let alone a promise,
that they will actually be turned over to the Iraqis. The issue of
bases places Iraq at the centerpiece of the broad global movement
challenging the network of U.S. military bases all over the world.
Opposition to the impact of those bases - environmental, social and
women's rights, economic and more - is rising in countries as diverse
as Korea, Italy, Ecuador, Kyrgyzstan and more. In fact in some
countries governments are joining with civil society to reject
Washington's global crusade. Kyrgyzstan decided to close the U.S. air
base there, indicating they prefer Russian bribes to U.S. warplanes.
(That decision may present the Obama administration with the unsavory
prospect of renewing the U.S. alliance with Uzbekistan, whose
government is characterized by some of the most egregious human rights
violations in the world.) Ecuador has recently passed a new
constitution prohibiting the presence of foreign military bases on
their soil, and is in the process of ending its hosting of the U.S.
airbase at Manta.
As the Obama administration seeks new ways to cut military spending,
closing the 50+ Iraqi bases, particularly the five mega-bases becomes
an urgent necessity. And the giant embassy-on-steroids that the Bush
administration built to house up to 5,000 U.S. diplomats and officials
should be closed down as a relic of an illegal war launched to maintain
control of the country, people and resources of Iraq.
Certainly almost three more years of acknowledged occupation is way
too long. That's almost half again as long as the U.S. occupation of
Iraq has been going today. But even so, if this 19-month partial
withdrawal really was a first step towards a complete end of the Iraq
war and occupation, if this really meant that the troops in Iraq would
be brought home instead of redeployed to another failing war in
Afghanistan, if this really meant that President Obama's promise that
"I will end the war" was about to be made real - then 19 months
wouldn't be so bad.
Then, at last, we could begin making good on our real debt to the
people of Iraq. Make good on the U.S. obligations for compensation
(money to Iraqis themselves, not to overpaid U.S. contractors), for
reparations (including for the years of society-destroying economic
sanctions), for support for Iraqi-led international help in
peacekeeping and in demilitarizing Iraq after so many years of
occupation and war.
So far, though, we're not seeing any of that. So far, there are too
many "buts." We know there is no military solution in Iraq - and
continuing an "occupation lite" to muscle out competitors in oil
contracts, or to maintain a power-expansion presence in the region, or
to create the illusion of "peace with honor" - none of these things
justify continuing an illegal U.S. occupation. Pulling out any troops
from Iraq is a good thing. But so far, our job hasn't ended - to
mobilize, to pressure, to continue to educate and advocate and agitate
for a real end to the war. We have a lot of work to do.
© 2023 Foreign Policy In Focus
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