Determined to set relations with Iraq on a clear course before he leaves office, US President George W Bush has thrown his weight behind negotiations over the modalities of the American commitment beyond 2008.
The broad outline of an agreement was worked out at a meeting between Bush and the Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki last November. Details, however, remain to be work out through intense negotiations that are already four months behind schedule.
The United Nations’ mandate under which the US-led coalition is in Iraq ends later this year almost at the same time as the Bush presidency. And it is clear that the 145,000 US troops still in Iraq will not, indeed cannot, be withdrawn by that time. Getting out is always harder than going in. The troop build-up for the Iraq war in 2003 took nine months to complete. To take the troops, and their heavy equipment, out could take twice as long, provided Iraq is peaceful and its government cooperative.
With the transfer of sovereignty to the Iraqis, the US and its allies ceased to be occupying powers almost three years ago. Now they will lose their status under a UN mandate.
So, what will the status of US troops be at the end of this year?
It is almost certain that Bush is not seeking a formal military alliance with Iraq. Such a proposition, supported by some Iraqis, is opposed by significant segments of Iraqi opinion. It could divide the Iraqi political elite at a time it needs cohesion and unity. In any case, a US Senate controlled by the Democrats is unlikely to ratify a military pact negotiated by Bush. Thus the hue and cry made about Iraq being sucked into a network of military alliances, recalling the controversial Baghdad Pact of the 1950s, is misplaced.
In recent years, US defense thinking has moved away from formal long-term alliances and towards what is known as “the coalition of the willing”, that is to say case-by-case arrangements with foreign nations in response to specific situations. Currently, the US has formal alliances with 26 countries, all members of NATO, and specific arrangements for military cooperation with over 120 others. In fact, of the 193 members of the United Nations, a staggering 131 are either formal allies of the US or have some military agreement with it.
One argument used by those who want the US to leave Iraq as fast as physically possible, thus leaving it exposed to the threat posed by its enemies, is that an American military presence would undermine Iraqi sovereignty.
However, as already noted, two-thirds of the members of the United Nations host American military personnel, albeit in varying numbers.
The US maintains over 700 full bases and more than 3000 other military facilities across the globe. The latter include hundreds of so-called ” lily-pads”, military facilities that could quickly be transformed into operational bases ready to use in case of war.
None of the countries where the US maintains bases or other military facilities, from United Kingdom to Japan, and passing by Germany and Turkey, feel that their sovereignty is undermined. Some countries, like Taiwan and South Korea regard an American presence as an insurance policy against dangerous neighbors.
Kosovo, the world’s newest nation-state, is fighting hard to persuade the Americans to stay as guarantors of its hard-won independence.
In any case, in recent years American strategic thinking has moved away from fixed bases in foreign countries. A programme of shutting down bases started in 2002, de-commissioning over 100 bases, mostly in Europe and Asia.
But will the Americans try to keep some bases in Iraq?
In 2004, the number of US bases of all shapes and sizes in Iraq reached almost 200. A year later, it had fallen to 105, as a programme of handing over to the new Iraqi army got under way. Since then, a further 28 bases have been transferred to Iraqi control, along with 10 of Saddam Hussein’s 22 palace compounds.
As things stand, it seems the US is planning to reduce the number of its bases even further, possibly ending up with just four in 2010. The largest is the multipurpose Camp Victory near Baghdad Airport, built with the latest design and equipped with ultra-modern materiel. In a sense, the three other bases, at Talil, south of Baghdad, Al-Assad in the Anbar province, and Qayyara near Erbil in the northeast, are complementary to Camp Victory. US troops also used to protect the 12 booster stations of the sophisticated Central Iraq Microwave Communication System for some time.
It is up to Iraq’s elected leaders to decide whether or not they still need an American military presence as an insurance policy. If they sincerely think so, they should say so openly and without forcefully. The people of Iraq should be fully informed about the contents and the form of the negotiations under way. They should also be reminded that the US has never tried to impose its military presence on unwilling hosts.
In 1966, General Charles De Gaulle asked the Americans to close tier bases in France and leave. The US did so with top speed, although withdrawing tens of thousands personnel involved complex logistical issues.
In 1969, Colonel Muammar al-Kaddhafi demanded the closure one of the United States’ largest bases in the Mediterranean region, the Wheelus. Again, the Americans complied, despite the fact that Libya intended to hand the base over to the Soviets. Since then, the Philippines (1999), Saudi Arabia (2002) and Uzbekistan (2006) have demanded that the US to close military facilities and withdraw its personnel from. In every case, the US has complied.
Thus the idea that the US could impose permanent bases against he will of the Iraqi people is fanciful, to say the least. In every case, bass used by the US are leased for fixed periods of time, renewable with mutual agreement.
What Iraq needs to worry about is not bases which, in any case, cannot be but temporary. Far more important is the role that the US intends to plan in Iraqi politics. So far, the US has acted as a full partner in virtually all major decisions taken by Iraq’s new leadership. It has also acted as an arbiter among various Iraqi communities and political factions. The US cannot, indeed should not, continue to play those two roles beyond the next Iraqi general election. New Iraq must take its own decisions and develop its own mechanisms for resolving communitarian and political conflicts. In other words, the problem cannot be solved through clenched fists and empty slogans during what is bound to be a difficult transition.