Any proposal to transfer American troops from Iraq to Afghanistan and Pakistan is sure to cause debate and questions among peace activists and rank-and-file Democrats. The proposal potentially represents a wider quagmire for the US government and military.
On Iraq, Obama said nothing especially new in his July 14 New York Times op-ed piece and his foreign policy speech in Washington today. In both, he forcefully restated his commitment to combat troop withdrawals after his recent statements suggesting that he would “refine” his views when he consults military commanders on the ground. He neglected to address how many American “residual forces” he would leave behind in Iraq to fight Al Qaeda and “protect American service members,” though he made additional US trainers conditional on the Iraqis making “political progress.” It is a proposal that seems to promise a phased diminishing of the American military presence, not a complete withdrawal.
Many independent analysts question the wisdom of leaving some 50,000 American troops as advisers, trainers and counter-terrorism units in Iraq after the withdrawal of 140,000 by 2010. Those forces would be protecting a sectarian political regime that is linked to death squads, militias and a detention system now holding 50,000 Iraqis in violation of human rights standards.
It is quite possible that Obama’s regional diplomacy, including hard bargaining with Iran, could facilitate a decent interval for American troop withdrawals and a more stabilized Iraq, as suggested by former CIA director John M. Deutch.
Obama smartly exploited the recent call by Iraqi prime minister Nuri al-Maliki for a US withdrawal deadline, although al-Maliki’s timeline was twice as long as Obama’s. In this face-saving scenario, the Pentagon would follow “the Philippine option,” in which the client government formally requested that the United States close its bases. This option was advocated openly by the Marines’ commander in Iraq in 2004. The United States withdrew only obsolete naval forces from the Philippines, however; today we spend hundreds of millions on a secret war against Islamic forces in the southern Philippines. Obama might do the same.
These public policy ambiguities are not simply Obama’s problem; they are caused by a mainstream media that stubbornly refuses to ask any questions about those “residual forces.” For example, how will “residual forces,” tied to the regime the Americans put in power, be more successful on the battlefield than the departing 170,000 combat troops?
But Obama’s proposals for Afghanistan and Pakistan are far more problematic. They can be described in everyday language as either out of the frying pan and into the fire or attacking needles by burning down haystacks.