What Col. Khaled is saying is that U.S. troops served as a backup when things got difficult on the streets, as a backstop against civil war and jihadism, and as a buttress against an expansionist Iran. U.S. troops simply cannot play these important roles from inside the borders of Kuwait, where Washington plans to garrison a just-in-case force of more than 20,000 troops.
In this regard, it’s interesting that President Obama himself cautioned during the 2008 campaign that the United States needed “enough troops in Iraq to guard our embassy and diplomats, and a counter-terrorism force to strike al Qaeda if it forms a base that the Iraqis cannot destroy.”
The tiny embassy protection force of perhaps 150 troops cannot fulfill this multi-faceted mission, and the small army of U.S. private security contractors will not be authorized or equipped to go after jihadist elements, keep restive groups apart or settle sectarian disputes.
Before President Obama’s surprising announcement in October that he was pulling out the entire U.S. stabilization force, American and Iraqi military commanders, as well as State Department officials, had counted on a modest-sized residual force to provide security and training. Indeed, as Frederick Kagan, one of the architects of the surge, has explained, “Painstaking staff work in Iraq led General Lloyd Austin to recommend trying to keep more than 20,000 troops in Iraq after the end of 2011.” The troops would not be there to fight, but rather to deter flare-ups, train Iraq’s nascent army and secure key facilities. Along the way, they would send a not-so-subtle message to Iran’s leaders that the Middle East was not theirs for the taking.
But President Obama, in effect, undercut the too-little-too-late negotiations with a take-it-or-leave-it offer of a residual force of just 3,000 troops—a force not even large enough to protect itself. When Baghdad balked, as Kagan reports, “The White House then dropped the matter entirely and decided instead to withdraw all U.S. troops from Iraq by the end of this year, despite the fact that no military commander supported the notion that such a course of action could secure U.S. interests.” That’s worth repeating: “no military commander supported” a complete withdrawal.
While it would seem that the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq would deprive Iran and its militias of easy targets—Iranian IEDs, after all, have killed or maimed hundreds of American troops in Iraq’s postwar war—the reality is that the withdrawal leaves 16,000 American diplomats and civilians more exposed than ever before. In other words, there are plenty of American targets left behind in Iraq—and relative to a Kevlar-clad U.S. soldier, they are all soft targets.
In short, it’s not difficult to imagine grim days ahead for Iraq and for the political, diplomatic and military personnel trying to make sense of President Obama’s policy. To paraphrase Sen. McCain, the next president of the United States may have to decide how we rescue Iraq from itself—and from its neighbor to the east.
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