Memo: Where Do the Democrats Stand on Iraq?

Memo: Where Do the Democrats Stand on Iraq?

Memo: Where Do the Democrats Stand on Iraq?

A deep look into how the candidates propose to bring the troops home and deal with the continuing military dilemma.


This is an analysis of the Democratic presidential candidates’ positions on Iraq on the brink of the Democratic debate to be held in Los Angeles on January 31 and the February 5 primaries. Republican policies and proposals will be subject of a subsequent memo.

While Republicans generally are determined to achieve military victory in Iraq and long-term “overwatch” no matter the cost, the Democrats all promise to “bring the troops home.” But Democrats disagree over timetables for withdrawal. Perhaps more important, when they talk about troop reduction, the Democrats really mean combat troops, and pulling out combat troops would still leave most American forces in Iraq.

Perhaps most important, the Democratic candidates would leave behind enough US troops for a transition that could turn Iraq into a counterinsurgency war very much like Central America in the 1970s. If, for example, they leave 15,000 US trainers behind, some 60,000 to 70,000 total American troops would be needed for support. Additionally, there is little if any discussion of how many private security contractors would remain, but the numbers could be over 40,000. Therefore there could be 100,000 American military personnel in Iraq after the departure of all combat troops.

There still is time for voters and the media to demand a clarification of these important issues and differences, especially since 90 percent of California Democratic voters want our troops out within one year, according to last week’s Los Angeles Times. Here are the key issues:

1: The withdrawal of American combat troops.

John Edwards:

One year timetable. Would withdraw all US combat and other troops within one year. Edwards supported authorization of the war, but later reversed his position.

Barack Obama:

Sixteen-month to eighteen-month timetable. Would withdraw all US combat troops within that time frame. Obama opposed the war in 2002.

Hillary Clinton:

No specific timetable. Would begin near-term withdrawal of combat troops, but sees a “remaining military mission” in Iraq. No fixed deadline for withdrawal. Clinton supported authorization of the war.

The fact is that frontline “combat” troops comprise only 20 percent to 25 percent of US military personnel in Iraq. Essential backup logistical tasks–intelligence analysts, drivers, guards, helicopter crews, mechanics and so forth–will have to be performed by Americans for remaining Americans and for Iraq troops in the future. “70,000 or more troops might have to stay for a considerable time.”

2: Replacing combat troops with counterinsurgency forces

John Edwards:

“Would withdraw the American troops who are training the Iraqi army and police as part of a broader plan to remove virtually all American forces within 10 months” (NYT, 1/2/08). Would also redeploy quick reaction force to Kuwait and perhaps Jordan to counter terrorism and genocide (NYT, 1/2/08.) Opposes listing Iran’s Revolutionary Guard as terrorist organization.

Barack Obama:

A US residual force would remain for counter-terrorism operations and training of Iraqis. The training commitment would depend on Iraqi political reconciliation. American troops should be ready to return in case of “genocidal” attacks (NYT, 11/1/08, 1/20/08). Also supports US special forces intervention in Pakistan if “actionable intelligence” exists. Supports negotiations without regime change towards Iran. Opposed Senate resolution listing Iran’s Revolutionary Guard as terrorist organization.

Hillary Clinton

: Would retain combat troops and a residual US force to “fight terrorists, protect the Kurds, deter Iranian aggression, and possibly support the Iraqi military” (NYT, 1/20/08). Voted to list Iran’s Revolutionary Guard as terrorist organization.

3: How many American personnel would be left behind as US combat troops withdraw?

The media has not pressed the candidates for numbers, nor have any been provided. The Iraq Study Group suggested that as combat troops withdraw, 10,000 to 20,000 additional American troops be sent to support the Iraqi army in combat and counter-terrorism, up from 5,000 embedded with Iraqi units in 2007. No one is mentioning at least 48,000 private contractors acting as soldiers or security forces, according the Government Accounting Office (Jeremy Scahill, LA Times, 1/25/07). Many counterinsurgency advocates are proposing a global “adviser corps” of 20,000 soldiers, a de facto constabulary force like the Italian Carabinieri (Lt. Col. John Nagl, Max Boot, New York Times, 11/14, 2007).

These figures do not include the American military personnel who are supporting but not performing combat missions. All those intelligence and communication personnel (8 percent), electricians and mechanics (20 percent), health care providers (4 percent), for example, will be there supporting either American or Iraqi forces, and will have to be protected by unknown numbers of American forces. The same support ratio–25 to 75–applies whether combat troops or trainers are being considered. That means 15,000 trainers would become at least 60,000 troops overall. (Lawrence Korb, Brian Katulis, Center for American Progress, communication, 1/29/2008).

15,000 trainers plus 40,000 private security contractors plus 45,000 non-combat troops = 100,000 American military personnel in Iraq after withdrawal of all

4: Is the Pentagon Actively Carrying Out a Transition to Counterinsurgency in Iraq?

There is no question the Pentagon plans to carry on a long-term counterinsurgency mission in Iraq, replacing US combat troops with embedded advisers, trainers, counterterrorism operations, residual forces for quick-strike responses, etc. (Iraq Study Group Report). This effort is intended to lessen American combat casualties while continuing the war against Al Qaeda, Iraqi insurgents, and militias opposed to the current Baghdad regime. This low-visibility war inevitably will involve human rights abuses on a large scale (“3 Suspects Talk After Iraqi Soldiers Do the Dirty Work“, New York Times, 4/21/08). The Jones Commission, a military body appointed by Congress, reported last July that the “(Iraqi) Ministry of the Interior is a ministry in name only. It is widely regarded as dysfunctional and sectarian, and suffers from ineffective leadership”; and said of the Iraqi National Police, “despite efforts to reform the Iraqi national police, the organization remains a highly sectarian element of the Iraqi Security Forces…[and] is almost exclusively Shi’a” (Report of the Independent Commission on the Security Forces of Iraq”, September 7, 2007).

General David Petraeus commanded the US transitional forces (MNSTC-I) during a scandal involving hundreds of thousands of missing weapons which led to the suicide of one of his top aides, Col. Theodore Westhusing, who wrote that “I cannot support a [mission] that leads to corruption, human rights abuses, and liars…. I don’t know who to trust anymore” (Newsweek, 8/20-27, 2007).

Close advisers to General Petraeus in Baghdad are promoting the revival of past American counterinsurgency programs that resulted in scandals and brutal human rights violations in South Vietnam and Central America. Lt. Col. David Kilcullen supports “the unfairly maligned (but highly effective) Vietnam-era Phoenix program” on a global basis. Colonel James Steele, an adviser on Iraqi security forces, was commander of the US military adviser group in El Salvador in 1984-86, during a time of documented death squad activities. Torture has been widespread in secret “unofficial” Baghdad jails operated by units loyal to the Interior Ministry.

HR 3134 (Waters, Woolsey, Lee) would investigate and prohibit funding of these police-state practices. The Center for American Progress has proposed enforcement of the 1997 Leahy Amendment, which prohibits military assistance to known human rights abusers.

But none of the three Democratic candidates has supported these measures to prohibit counterinsurgency from becoming a “dirty war.”

5. Is There an Alternative?

The Center for American Progress (CAP), headed by President Clinton’s former chief of staff, John Podesta, has complained of “strategic drift” setting in among the Democratic candidates and their security advisers. One CAP analyst has said of the Democrats’ “drift” that “it’s beginning to feel like 2004.” CAP proposes limiting the President’s 2008 supplemental funding request by one-half. CAP further calls for all US troops to be removed from Iraq on a one-year timetable except for a modest embassy-protection force, “suspending training and arming forces in a deadly civil war,” and redeploying US troops to neighboring countries and leaving a temporary 8,000-10,000 troops to the Kurdish region of Iraq through 2009.

Specifically, CAP would leave one Army brigade and one tactical air squadron in Kuwait, two mobile Army brigades in the Kurdish areas and a Marine expeditionary unit in the Persian Gulf; four or five Army combat brigades would be deployed to Afghanistan.

None of the leading Democratic candidates have endorsed or acknowledged the CAP plan for troop withdrawals and enforcement of the Leahy amendment proposed by President Clinton’s former top aide.

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