White House: We're Really, Really Ending the Iraq War
Spencer Ackerman, Wired
he White House says it's on track to remove the remaining 15,000 U.S. troops from Iraq by December 31, despite some apparent misreporting from Baghdad – which, um, we breathlessly repeated.
In a joint press appearance on Tuesday, Vice President Joe Biden and Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki seemed to suggest that U.S. troops might return to Iraq in 2012. Maliki, whose government has balked at a continued presence, said that there's "no doubt the U.S. forces have a role in providing training of Iraqi forces." Biden seemed to go farther, talking about a "robust security relationship," including on subjects like "training, intelligence and counterterrorism."
But National Security Council spokesman Tommy Vietor tells Danger Room that the U.S. role in the war really, really will end with the New Year.
"There is no change in administration policy. All troops will be out at the end of the year," Vietor says. There is "no resumption of negotiations" with the Iraqis about a possible residual force.
Instead, a rump of 150 U.S. servicemen, taking their cues from the State Department, will assist the Iraqis with "the weapons they buy." Vietor continues, "It's not combat, and it's not SOF," referring to Special Operations Forces. At most, U.S. forces will provide "technical advice on counterterrorism" or hold joint training exercises. Even that is a hypothetical at this point — apparently, what Biden means to discuss with the Iraqis this week.
We've been skeptical. Ever since Defense Secretary Leon Panetta told the Senate that al-Qaida still has a whopping 1,000 loyalists in Iraq, we've wondered how the U.S. would walk away from those targets. When Obama made his "we're outta here" announcement in October, we told you to expect a continued "shadow presence by the CIA, and possibly the Joint Special Operations Command, to hunt persons affiliated with al-Qaida." (And that's leaving aside the 5,000-plus mercs who'll guard U.S. diplomats.)
Here's the backstory.
All year long, with the pullout looming, the U.S. military has publicly expressed its strong desire to keep a residual force in Iraq. Estimates of the size of that force vary — they hover around 10,000 troops — but the military leaned hard on Iraqi politicians to cement it. Obama even dispatched Brett McGurk, the Bush administration official who negotiated the 2008 accord with Iraq stipulating a 2011 U.S. troop withdrawal, to Baghdad to see if Iraq would give the U.S. some wiggle room. "Dammit, make a decision," was the way Panetta put it in July.
It turned out their decision was no. In October, the Iraqi parliament declined to grant U.S. troops legal immunity from prosecution after 2011, a key requirement by the U.S. for a residual force. Once they did, Obama conveniently forgot his months' worth of efforts to extend the lifespan of U.S. troops in Iraq and billed the diplomatic failure as the steadfast fulfillment of a campaign promise. "Today, I can report that, as promised, the rest of our troops in Iraq will come home by the end of the year," he told the cameras on October 21.
But then Obama got battered by Republican politicians for not pushing hard enough with the Iraqis on the residual force. "This administration was committed to the complete withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq and they made it happen," Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) hectored Panetta earlier this month.
If it's really the case that the U.S. is truly drawing a line under the war, as Obama is promising and the White House is reaffirming, then McCain's not going to get any happier. "What [Biden and Maliki] are talking about is how the U.S. and Iraq will work together on security issues going forward," Vietor says. "No U.S. troops [and] no Special Forces will be based in Iraq after this year."