Finally, an Exit Strategy
Thursday, October 23, 2008 at 6:00 am
It was supposed to lock in an indefinite U.S. occupation.
Last year, after the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki indicated that Iraq considered the U.N. Security Council mandate for the U.S. occupation an affront to Iraqi sovereignty, the Bush administration signed a “Declaration of Principles” with Maliki for the future of the U.S.-Iraq relationship. It underscored the prospective terms for an agreement on an indefinite U.S. presence. American and Iraqi negotiators have now spent months working on this accord.
But the latest — and possibly final — text of that agreement reveals that the Iraqi government has undermined practically every effort made by the Bush White House to lock in the occupation as an enduring feature of U.S. foreign policy.
Instead of entrenching the occupation, a draft of the accord, dated Oct. 13 and currently being circulated by members of the U.S. House of Representatives, insists on a 2011 pullout date, with Washington “recogniz[ing] the Iraqi government’s sovereign right” to demand an earlier withdrawal. “Dec. 31, 2011 looks like the real deadline,” said Ilan Goldenberg, policy director of the National Security Network, a liberal policy organization.
Iraqi negotiators are exhausted, said Rend al-Rahim, the Iraqi ambassador to the U.S. from 2003 to 2004. “There’s a sense of crisis, ongoing crisis associated with this SOFA,” al-Rahim said in a phone interview from Baghdad, using the acronym for a Status of Forces Agreement — the formal term for a garrisoning accord. “All Iraqi officials I’ve talked to are worn out by this, not only because of negotiators on the Iraqi side [feeling frustrated with the U.S.], but also by internal Iraqi negotiations. You cannot underestimate the complications to the SOFA created by internal Iraqi political dynamics.”
As currently written, the accord hardly makes the occupation permanent. Instead, it could make it easier for a hypothetical President Barack Obama to withdraw from Iraq — and make it more difficult for a hypothetical President John McCain to remain indefinitely.
Rather than establish an open-ended presence, Article 25 of the Oct. 13 draft states, “the U.S. forces shall withdraw from Iraqi territories no later than Dec. 31, 2011.” U.S. combat forces must also pull back “from all cities, towns and villages” long before that — “no later than June 30, 2009.”
More than that, the text states that the Iraqis reserve “the sovereign right to request a withdrawal of U.S. forces at any time.” Between now and 2011, all military activities performed by U.S. troops must be coordinated through “a joint committee of military operations,” giving the Iraqis a potential veto over U.S. actions in Iraq.
The draft accord places other restrictions on the U.S. freedom of movement. Article 12 states Iraq will have “primary legal jurisdiction” over U.S. personnel “in the case of major and intentional crimes” that take place off U.S. bases or while “troops are off duty.” Iraq also has “primary legal jurisdiction” over “contractors with the U.S. and their employees” — something Iraqis insisted on after contractors employed by the Blackwater private security firm were accused of killing 17 Iraqi civilians in September, 2007.
Far from establishing permanent U.S. military bases in Iraq, Article 5 specifies that all U.S.-used installations or facilities “will be returned to the Iraqi authorities after this agreement expires.”
How the Bush administration got to this point is instructive. In the spring and summer, a team of negotiators led by Amb. Ryan Crocker — and backed at the White House by a National Security Council staffer named Brett McGurk — pushed far-reaching terms on the Iraqis. Washington pressed for exemptions from Iraqi law applying not only to U.S. troops, as is traditional, but to U.S. contractors for private corporations at work in Iraq.
It also sought a free hand when conducting military operations — without having to consult Iraqis — and the ability to arrest Iraqis as it saw fit. Reportedly, Washington even claimed the right to control Iraqi airspace for all aircraft flying below 29,000 feet. “It is a terrible breach of our sovereignty,” one Iraqi politician told Patrick Cockburn of The Independent of London.
Surprising to both the administration and many outside observers, the Iraqis began to push back. Figures outside the government, especially radical Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, demanded that Maliki refuse any open-ended occupation. Maliki responded by taking the dramatic step of endorsing Obama’s plan to withdraw combat troops by 2010, even mentioning the candidate’s plan in an interview with the German news magazine Der Spiegel.
“As late as July, you had the prime minister saying the draft was totally unacceptable,” said Rahim. “That’s not the sense now. It’s no longer an unacceptable agreement — it’s a workable one. That doesn’t mean it’s going to be signed, because of political problems — domestic Iraqi problems.”
Looking to salvage as much from the deal as it could, the Bush administration — which had spent five years arguing that a timetable for withdrawal amounted to a dishonorable defeat — agreed in the draft to so-called “time horizons” for removing troops. The acceptance would “take the heat off [Maliki] a little bit, to rebrand the thing and counter the narrative that he’s negotiating for a permanent military presence in Iraq,” one negotiator told Karen DeYoung of The Washington Post in July.
The Bush administration also ended up locking itself into a process that created more difficulties. On Dec. 31, the legal mandate for the occupation set by the United Nations will expire, effectively acting as a deadline for Washington to reach a deal with Iraq.
The Iraqis’ continued belief that the text doesn’t adequately protect Iraqi sovereignty has caused nervousness among senior officials that time is running out. “There is great potential for losses of significant consequence” if the U.S. military loses the legal authority to operate in Iraq, Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said this week.
Similarly, Defense Sec. Robert Gates effectively announced that Washington will not significantly renegotiate the draft accord. “There is great reluctance to engage further in the drafting process,” Gates said. “I don’t think you slam the door shut, but I would say it’s pretty far closed.”
Yet a wide-ranging group of Iraqis remain dissatisfied with many aspects of the deal, if for different reasons. Some would prefer that the text include a provision allowing a continuing review of security conditions before withdrawal. Others are concerned about the Article 22 provision, that when the deal goes into force “all detainees in U.S. custody shall be released.”
Still others fear that an Article 28 provision does not obligate the U.S. to defend Iraq from external aggression while its troops operate on Iraqi soil. Rahim said these concerns were “not fundamental,” but added, “This is all happening in a climate where there are elections in the U.S. and provincial elections very soon in Iraq. And undoubtedly those two factors complicate the situation.”
Some analysts in the U.S. remain concerned as well. “Increasingly I see a danger that a new administration could face an overwhelming set of priorities — on the economic and domestic fronts as well as national security — that such an agreement with in Iraq could set into motion a certain path of dependency in the policy — creating facts on the ground in a sense,” said Brian Katulis, a fellow at the Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank, in an email. “Just like the appointments of Gens. Ray Odierno and David Petraeus could serve to constrain fundamental changes on Iraq policy, an agreement — if (and it is very big if) it is achieved — could set into motion a series of commitments that might be more difficult for a new administration to break just as it is getting its team in place and setting its priorities.”
But the agreement appears to be a bigger constraint for a new administration that wishes to stay in Iraq, not one that wishes to leave. “According to this draft only the Iraqis can ask for an extension of American forces remaining in Iraq,” said Goldenberg of the National Security Network. “And that is a request that, as far as I can tell, would be politically impossible for them to make. So, yeah, Dec. 31, 2011, looks like the real deadline.”
Neither the Obama campaign nor the McCain campaign responded to requests for comment. In an interview with CNN on Wednesday, McCain misrepresented what the accord states. “You know it’s condition-based, and that’s the big fight was all about,” he lectured Wolf Blitzer, who accurately stated that the accord calls for hard dates for withdrawal.
Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.), the chairman of the Armed Services Committee, expressed concern about legal protections for U.S. troops in Iraq, but, in a statement issued Friday, said that he would reserve judgment until the text is finalized.
Levin, however, praised the agreement for setting a date to withdraw from Iraq. “The proposed agreement with Iraq includes strict deadlines for the pullback of U.S. forces from Iraqi cities and towns by next summer; and the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq by the end of 2011,” he said in the statement. “Clearly, now, the administration is willing to accept such deadlines, despite the president’s past insistence that similar congressionally-proposed goals for the withdrawal of U.S. forces would be ‘setting a date for failure.’”
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