America fears Iran could fill the void in Iraq
The practical question regarding the American withdrawal from Iraq is when would the tens of thousands of personnel stationed there begin to be a liability rather than a positive contribution.
It would be best to avoid falling for the optimism expressed by President Barack Obama and senior members of his administration over the weekend: The full evacuation of the American forces from Iraq announced on Friday is a failure they had hoped to avoid. Presenting it as meeting an obligation to the Iraqi nation and the American public, under the typical guise of "bringing the boys home for Christmas," is just half the story - the half that relates to the past, while the future appears to be problematic.
American military involvement in Iraq has been ongoing for the past 20 years, since the first war between the countries in January-February 1991. Following 12 years of enforcing a no-fly zone in northern Iraq to protect the Kurds, and in the south for the Shi'ites, the fight shifted onto the land and the second war in Iraq in March-April 2003, which was followed by nearly nine years of boots on the ground.
Presidents George W. Bush and Obama wanted to bring the troops home earlier. The reinforcements that were brought in in 2007 following the recommendation of General David Petraeus, which ran contrary to the mainstream view - including the opinion of then-Senator Obama - proved surprising in their success in stabilizing the security situation in Iraq. The average number of daily attacks against U.S., NATO and government forces dropped during the past four years from 145 to 14.
The practical question was when would the tens of thousands of American personnel in Iraq begin to be a liability rather than a positive contribution. The end of December this year was considered to be the best time - not too late for the 2012 election year, and not too early for completing the enormous logistical operation of evacuating the equipment. According to the Pentagon, as of last week they had removed 1.6 million items from the military inventory in the country, some two thirds of the overall equipment. That same week, 13,900 trucks in 399 convoys carried equipment out of Iraq, but also brought food and fuel in for the troops who continue to occupy 23 bases. Three years ago there were 505 American bases in Iraq.
These are impressive numbers, testament to the American industry and war machine - but it is not about logistics, rather politics. Obama, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta and the joint chiefs of staff had hoped that the Iraqis would urge them not to stick to the agreement to evacuate and keep the trainers of the Iraqi army in place. Not more than a month ago Panetta said that Iraq should seek U.S. aid in filling the gaps in its defenses against external threats.
For some time the Americans believed that Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki would respond to the rather clear hints and make such a request, which would then be answered generously, but their hopes were for naught. Internal political forces in Iraq who wanted to see the final exit of U.S. forces from the country proved to be too powerful. They, and Iran which is behind them, are worrying the Americans.
During the upcoming two months General Lloyd Austin, commander of the U.S. forces in Iraq, will have to protect his troops from attacks by groups funded, trained and armed by Iran, who will seek to strike at the exiting troops. Then will come the battle for the future of Iraq, divided between Sunnis, Shi'ites and Kurds, each tribe and community divided by demographics, geography and geology - that is oil deposits.
Without the Americans Iraq will be exposed to Iranian penetration more than ever. Three decades after Saddam Hussein tried to take advantage of the Iranian weakness following the overthrow of the Shah and the rise of Khomeini, Iran is poised to take control of the Persian Gulf. This is the source of the concern of Iraq's neighbors, especially Saudi Arabia and Jordan.
The American effort will henceforth be based on forging a "strategic partnership" between Washington and Baghdad, through the sale of advanced arms to the Iraqi forces and joining with Turkey, which is interested in retaining its freedom to operate against its enemies in Kurdish Iraq. This will hardly make anyone in the Middle East feel at ease: The overall impression is that wherever the Americans withdraw, the Iranians enter.
If this will be the new reality following the exit from Iraq, with Israel once again facing a dangerous eastern front, whose demise followed the end of the Cold War and the peace agreement with Jordan, pressure will grow in Washington for a military response to the Iranian challenge. Without tens of thousands of U.S. soldiers in Iraq, it may be even more necessary, but also easier, since the vulnerable targets to Iranian retaliation - the U.S. troops on the ground - will no longer be within the range of missiles and explosives.