18 Nov 2011

Washington accelerates pullout from Iraq

Reports that Washington is accelerating its withdrawal from Iraq by three weeks are a mixed blessing, says defence analyst Anthony Tucker-Jones.

Iraq soldier - Reuters

It has been announced that US Vice-President Joe Biden will arrive in Baghdad in early December to celebrate the US pull out. However, the official completion date is not due until the 31st.

Currently, the US has around 24,000 troops in Iraq; the intention was that the majority of these would be home by mid-December.

On Capitol Hill the Republicans, especially on the Senate armed services committee, remain completely unconvinced by US Defence Secretary Leon Panetta’s arguments that leaving Iraq is the right thing to do.

Few believe that the Iraqi armed forces are capable of defending Iraq’s borders or its airspace. In the meantime it continues to fight Iran-backed extremists.

In addition there are fears that Arab-Kurdish tensions may be rekindled in the north east of the country – the oil-rich city of Kirkuk is a particular flashpoint.

The reality on the ground is that US combat operations officially came to an end last summer with the withdrawal of the 4th Stryker Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division.

This heralded the end of Operation Iraqi Freedom and the commencement of Operation New Dawn, under which residual US forces would assume a training role.

Read more: Is life in Iraq getting any better?

Although President Obama agreed that the US military would complete its pull-out by the end of December, crucially no agreement has been reached over military instructors remaining behind – as Baghdad will not grant them legal immunity.

This may simply be a way of the Iraqis saying they do not want any overt US military presence on their soil.

Nouri al-Maliki, the Iraq prime minister, is due in Washington on 12 December to discuss future US-Iraqi relations – key among these will be the future of the role of the US Office of Security Cooperation.

The only way round the dilemma of maintaining an American footprint in Iraq is through the use of civilian contractors. This raises issues of inordinate costs to the US Treasury and accountability – Washington already has a tarnished track record in this respect.

In theory, under current plans bloated US embassy staffing levels in Iraq will total 16,000, most of whom will be civilian contractors picking up lucrative business in the security industry.

Subject to final agreement, the OSC is to operate 10 Iraqi bases, where they will provide training and support for fighter aircraft and armour. In particular Iraq will need considerable assistance assimilating 18 F-16 fighters worth $3bn, which were ordered in the summer.

Defence Secretary Panetta has been at pains to point out that Washington is not simply abandoning Iraq to its fate. America still has some 40,000 troops in the Middle East, notably in Bahrain, Kuwait, the UAE and Qatar.

There is some indication that around 4,000 US troops from Iraq may end up in Kuwait – effectively on standby.

Despite Republican concerns, the bottom line is that after eight years of war, over 4,400 American dead and over 32,000 wounded, the States has no stomach for a continued military commitment in Iraq.

In the meantime, it remains to be seen if Iraq’s militants will be emboldened by any acceleration in the US withdrawal, or whether they are content to bide their time till the end of the year.

Anthony Tucker-Jones is the security and terrorism correspondent for “intersec – The Journal of International Security” as well as a regular commentator for defencemanagement.com