The U.S. will pull its last troops from Iraq by the end of the year, President Obama announced Friday, after Washington and Baghdad failed to reach an agreement over a dispute on the legal immunity of the estimated 3,000 to 5,000 soldiers expected to remain in the country after December 31. Instead, the U.S. will leave about 160 military personnel to guard the embassy and manage the military relationship, over 4,000 private State Department security contractors, and a significant CIA presence. About 40,000 troops currently remain in Iraq in a training capacity.
The date of the December 31, 2011 pull-out was set in motion by President Bush in 2008, when he approved a deal calling for U.S. troops to withdraw by the upcoming date.
“Over the next two months, our troops in Iraq, tens of thousands of them, will pack up their gear and board convoys for the journey home,” Obama said. “The last American soldier will cross the border out of Iraq with their heads held high, proud of their success, and knowing that the American people stand united in our support for our troops. That is how America’s military efforts in Iraq will end.”
Missing from President Obama’s announcement was anything approaching a declaration of victory, since this is not one. Many analysts are rightly concerned with what the void created by America’s exit from Iraq will bring — most often pointing to Iran but also noting that it could spark a resurgence of ethnic and sectarian violence. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton acknowledged the concerns, warning Iran on Sunday that the withdrawal should not be mistaken for a lack of U.S. commitment to the region. But it is hard to see how Iran would not see it that way.
After a weak U.S. response to the recently foiled Iranian plot to assassinate the Saudi ambassador in Washington, DC, it’s hard to imagine why Tehran would be scared to exert its influence in Iraq as soon as the Americans are gone. In its favor, Iraq now boasts an Iranian leaning coalition government and lacks a functioning legislature or officials in high-level positions, such as that of defense minister. So it is not the adoption of a new Iranian policy or plan but rather the broadening of Iran’s current strategy to steer Iraq’s political future that are already in place. Without American troops in the theater, there will be nothing to prevent Iran from hijacking Iraqi politics.
The U.S. has a history of successes in leaving troops in various regions long after those wars ended to ensure the population’s security, good governance, and act as an honest broker. Turning Iraq over to Iran would be a giant step backward for the U.S. and the region as a whole.