Not Home for the Holidays, Again

Once again it’s the holidays, and once again some 180,000 U.S. soldiers (about 149,000 in Iraq and 31,000 in Afghanistan) won’t be home with their families and friends. This despite the fact that 70 percent of Americans want American troops withdrawn from Iraq. The reality, however, is that it will be at least another two years before the troops will be home for the holidays. And it shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone if U.S. troops remain in Iraq for years to come.

The current status of forces agreement (SOFA) between the United States and Iraq requires U.S. troops to be out of Iraq by the end of 2011. But the agreement is only as good as the paper it’s written on. And whether the paper is actually worth anything is already questionable, since Gen. Ray Odierno, the top U.S. military commander in Iraq, believes U.S. troops will remain in cities to train and support Iraqi forces despite a summer deadline to pull American combat troops from urban areas. Also, just because the current SOFA calls for U.S. withdrawal by 2011 doesn’t mean that it can’t be renegotiated before the deadline (and it’s important to remember that the agreement is an executive agreement that only requires White House approval, unlike a formal treaty, which requires Senate ratification). One early indication that the SOFA might be renegotiated and extended is a remark by Ali al-Dabbagh, spokesman for the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki: "We do understand that the Iraqi military is not going to get built out in the three years. We do need many more years. It might be 10 years."

During the campaign, President-elect Obama called for ending the U.S. military presence in Iraq within 16 months of taking office:

"[W]e must be as careful getting out of Iraq as we were careless getting in. Immediately upon taking office, Obama will give his secretary of defense and military commanders a new mission in Iraq: ending the war. The removal of our troops will be responsible and phased, directed by military commanders on the ground and done in consultation with the Iraqi government. Military experts believe we can safely redeploy combat brigades from Iraq at a pace of 1 to 2 brigades a month that would remove them in 16 months. That would be the summer of 2010 – more than 7 years after the war began."

However, he did not call for a complete withdrawal. And his proposal sounds a lot like the Bush plan of "as the Iraqis stand up, we will stand down":

"[A] residual force will remain in Iraq and in the region to conduct targeted counter-terrorism missions against al-Qaeda in Iraq and to protect American diplomatic and civilian personnel. They will not build permanent bases in Iraq, but will continue efforts to train and support the Iraqi security forces."

Of course, Obama hasn’t offered any specifics on how large such a residual force would remain in Iraq. And doing so ignores the reality that even a small U.S. military presence is problematic – after all, it was the deployment of only 5,000 troops in Saudi Arabia after Operation Desert Storm in 1991 that became the rallying cry for Osama bin Laden to make the United States a target for terrorism on 9/11.

Moreover, Obama has hinted that he might be willing to change his 16-month plan based on the security situation and advice he receives from his military commanders – which is no different than what President Bush has previously said.

But even if U.S. troops are removed from Iraq sometime in 2011, there will likely be more in Afghanistan than there are now. Obama has previously called for "at least two additional combat brigades to support our effort in Afghanistan," and the Defense Department is already planning on having three more combat brigades in Afghanistan by this summer. But at least one Brit – and the British have more experience with and better understand counterinsurgency operations than we do – acknowledges that more troops are not the answer. According to Conservative MP Adam Holloway (who served in the British Army with the Grenadier Guards):

Success depends entirely on the ordinary Afghan. … Speak to almost anyone who has been in the country for more than the six-month tour, and they tell you a simple truth: you cannot impose security on the Pashtuns – this can only be built by them. Alarmingly, they explain that our activities make a stable Pakistan very much less likely in future."

(Full disclosure: Adam is a good friend of mine.)

Ultimately, the larger problem with not being home for the holidays in both Iraq and Afghanistan is that continued military occupation – large or small – is a prescription for strategic failure (even if a modicum of tactical success on the ground is achieved). Foreign military occupation not only violates the sovereignty of the government, it also breeds resentment among the population, which, in turn, creates more terrorists. According to the only comprehensive empirical analysis of suicide terrorism, by University of Chicago scholar Robert Pape, author of Dying to Win: The Strategic Logic of Suicide Terrorism, "nearly all suicide terrorist attacks have in common is a specific secular and strategic goal: to compel modern democracies to withdraw military forces from territory that the terrorists consider to be their homeland." This is the fundamental phenomenon that U.S. policymakers still refuse to acknowledge.

Author: Charles V. Peña

Charles V. Peña is a senior fellow at the Independent Institute, a senior fellow with the Coalition for a Realistic Foreign Policy, a former senior fellow with the George Washington University Homeland Security
Policy Institute
, an adviser to the Straus Military Reform Project, and an analyst for MSNBC television. Peña is the co-author of Exiting Iraq: Why the U.S. Must End the Military Occupation and Renew the War Against al-Qaeda and author of Winning the Un-War: A New Strategy for the War on Terrorism.