Just when you thought that the proverbial fat lady was about to launch into an aria over the final withdrawal of US military forces in Iraq, the US military announced that it is drawing up contingency plans to delay the withdrawal.
In an op-ed in today's New York Times, Tom Ricks, author of "Fiasco," argues that the Obama administration should abandon its commitment to pull our military forces out of Iraq and maintain a robust military presence there "for many years to come." He argues that it could be the best way to deter a return to civil war and help Iraq move forward politically. He argues that it could be the best way to deter a return to civil war and help Iraq move forward politically.
Ricks is wrong. And so is the military for drawing up - and publicly announcing - a contingency plan to keep our forces in Iraq. The best way to deter the return to civil war in Iraq is for Iraqi government leaders to realize that they are responsible for their actions and will not be able to look to our men and women in uniform to bail them out. The role of the United States is to abide by its commitment under the Status of Forces Agreement and respect Iraqi sovereignty - not guarantee Iraqi security. An overwhelming majority of Iraqi citizens agree.
The president should order the military to scrap the contingency plans and reaffirm what he told an audience of cheering Marines at Camp Lejune last February: "By August 31, 2010, our combat mission in Iraq will end."
Why is the US military drawing up plans to stay in Iraq after the deadline for its departure passes? Why the second guessing from writers like Ricks? Political instability and increased violence. According to Commanding General Ray Odierno, the military is prepared to scrap the withdrawal plan "if we run into problems."
On its current trajectory, General Odierno can count on Iraq running into "problems." From very early on, President Malaki has run a sectarian Shi'ite regime. Many Sunnis were held in secret prisons and tortured. Few were allowed any significant roles in government or the military. Civil strife intensified and was only reduced when U.S. policy opened to the "Sunni Awakening," put Sunnis on the payroll, and prevailed on Malaki to ratchet down his hostile rhetoric. Now, as the date for U.S. withdrawal draws near, elections loom, and Malaki seeks victory as a nationalist defender of Iraq's independence, he has returned to full-throated sectarianism. The inevitable result is the re-escalation of civil conflict. The U.S. military presence has been and will continue to be Malaki's enabler for as long as our troops remain in his country.
Friends told me last May to calm down when I fretted about whether or not the best laid plans of the Obama administration and the Status of Forces Agreement between Iraq and the United States would actually occur on schedule or even at all. General Odierno had been critical of the plan since the moment it was announced, I worried aloud in a blog post: "When General Odierno was asked earlier this year if all combat forces will, in fact, be removed from Iraqi cities and villages by the end of June of this year, he balked, saying that they can remain if they are joined by Iraqi forces. His comment created a firestorm of protest in the Iraqi parliament."
Ominously, I also cited what Tom Ricks was reporting last May - that there was a "consensus within the military" that U.S. combat operations were only half over in Iraq and that the US will have combat troops fighting there in 2015.
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Fast forward to now: President Maliki has intensified his sectarian battle against Iraqi Sunnis by rigging the elimination of the most popular Sunni leaders from the ballot in next month's Parliamentary elections. This was after he betrayed the Sunni "Awakening Councils" who had laid down their arms against US and Iraqi forces in exchange for a pledge to: A) Pay them $300 per month; B) Integrate them into the Iraqi police force; and C) Stop harassing their leadership. The deal was a turning point in the war. What happened? Maliki stopped the payments (he later resumed them after being pressured by the US) and started arresting their leaders. Today less than 5% of the Awakening Councils members have been integrated into the Iraqi police force.
Now he is rigging the election to make sure that his political Sunni rivals literally do not have a chance when Iraqis go to the polls on March 7 to elect a new parliament. The elimination of prominent Iraqi leaders from next month's election was rigged by the very man who duped the Bush administration and played them like a fiddle before and after the US invasion. Remember good ole Ahmed Chalibi? He was the darling of the Bushies who provided so much of the baseless information that was used to publicly justify the invasion. In the "they will welcome us with flowers" phase of the US military occupation, Chalabi was to become installed as Iraq's new western leaning, oil yielding leader. Turns out that Iraqis were not interested in a corrupt con artist running things. He ended up facing criminal charges instead of leading the new Iraq into the future. Ever the quick-change artist and survivor extraordinaire, Chalibi kept his fast and quick hand in the political soup, teaming up with Maliki's man Ali Faisal al-Lami and their Iranian allies over in Tehran in a maneuver that has thrown their Sunni competition off of the ballot. They did it through their leadership of a national institution whose name even George Orwell couldn't have come up with - "The Supreme National Commission for Accountability and Justice." Both Chalibi and Lami will be on next month's ballot as part of the Shiite coalition, the Iraqi National Alliance. Important Sunni opponents will not.
The consequence? The popular Sunni political party, the National Dialogue Front, is pulling out of the elections after their leader, Saleh al-Mutlak, was thrown off the ballot by the Chalabi gang. This is very ominous as Iraq cannot afford for it to be "deja-vu all over again." The last time Sunni Arabs boycotted national elections was in 2005. Those discredited elections were followed by an intensified insurgency, massive bloodshed and a sectarian civil war. As the Washington Post reported yesterday: "The decision by the National Dialogue Front to pull out of the elections could cement views here that Shiite religious parties have rigged the vote against secular and Sunni candidates ...The disqualifications have caused widespread fear that the elections will be deemed illegitimate."
So, where does that put our soldiers in Iraq? Waiting in the wings to see if the contingency plans being drawn up by their superiors put them back on the front lines. And that is both a senseless and an extremely dangerous place for our soldiers to be.
As I wrote last May: "Will there continue to be violence and instability in Iraq as U.S. forces are removed? Yes. But if a secure and peaceful Iraq is the requirement for the removal of U.S. forces, then our forces will be there for a very long time. If, on the other hand, the bottom line is that it is time for Iraqis to take responsibility for Iraq - as 80% of the Iraqi population wants -then the president is right. It is time for U.S. forces to go."
The bottom line for US policy in Iraq must be sovereignty, not security. If Iraqi leaders want to engage in flim-flam political maneuvers that enrage their opponents, alienate millions of Sunnis and ignite a new round of sectarian violence, that is their business. Iraq is their country. But the LAST thing that anyone should be thinking and planning and announcing is that our men and women in uniform might be ordered into harm's way to clean up the mess.
Even the existence of so-called "contingency plans" by the US military sends a dangerous signal that once again our soldiers might be ordered to risk life and limb to bail out bad choices by sectarian Iraqis who hold the reins of power. Mr. President, please order General Odierno to dump his contingency plans and read your orders for the withdrawal of all combat forces from Iraq by the end of August. There should not be a shadow of a doubt that our soldiers are leaving Iraq on schedule.
It's time for the fat lady to tune up and sing!