What Does the Status of Forces Agreement Really Mean?
The Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) signed by the U.S. and Iraqi governments demands the departure of U.S. combat troops from Iraqi towns and cities by July 2009 and the full departure of U.S. forces — not just combat forces, all U.S. forces — by Dec. 2011. This is an enormous, massive, situation-altering strategic fact. And it appears not to have fully sunk in to many in the U.S. military.
In during the conference call this morning with Maj. Gen. Mike Milano, head of the U.S.’s training efforts for Iraqi police, Bill Roggio of the Long War Journal asked what the SOFA would mean for him. “I really can’t say definitively,” he replied. “It really depends on progress made by the Ministry of Interior, police forces, [and there are] a lot of variables associated with that.” That’s a sensible answer — if there weren’t an agreement saying that he had three years to wrap his efforts up. What he didn’t say on the call was something on the order of, “We have to consider a lot of things in the context of this agreement, and here’s where my thinking is at…”
And I wonder if that isn’t coming down from the top. Gen. Ray Odierno, commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, tends to talk more about how he can get around the SOFA than how he’s going to follow it. In today’s New York Times, Odierno is described as being almost dismissive of the idea that the SOFA is really going to get U.S. forces out:
General Odierno also said that he was planning for all American forces to be out of Iraq by 2011, as called for in the agreement with the Iraqi government, but he said the agreement could be renegotiated. “Three years is a long time,” General Odierno said.
It’s one thing for Odierno to want to safeguard his operational flexibility. That’s his prerogative as a commander, and it’s something to be respected. But the SOFA is a strategic agreement between the U.S. and Iraq. Undermining it is something that will occur at the Iraqi government’s peril. From a counterinsurgency perspective, wanting to stay in Iraq more than the Iraqis want the U.S. in Iraq is sheer astrategic madness. It’s up to Obama to make his intentions clear here.