Obama to Announce Iraq Troop Withdrawal

President Barack Obama said directly that he would be announcing “a way forward in Iraq that leaves Iraq to its people and responsibly ends this war.” As far as it goes, that sounds good. This is an indication that President Obama is largely keeping to his campaign promises, and that’s a hopeful sign, reflecting the power of the anti-war consensus in this country.

If this plan were actually a first step towards the unequivocal goal of a complete end to the U.S. occupation of Iraq, it would be better than good, it would be fabulous. But that would mean this withdrawal would be the first step towards a complete withdrawal of all U.S. troops, pulling out of all the 150,000+ U.S.-paid foreign mercenaries and contractors, closing all the U.S. military bases, and ending all U.S. efforts to control Iraqi oil.

So far that is not on Obama’s agenda.

The troop withdrawal as planned would leave behind as many as 50,000 U.S. troops. That’s an awful lot. Even Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi thinks that may be too much. She told Rachel Maddow, “I don’t know what the justification is for 50,000, at the present …I would think a third of that, maybe 20,000, a little more than a third, 15,000 or 20,000.”

Those troops won’t include officially designated “combat” troops. But those tens of thousands of troops will still be occupying Iraq. Doing what? Very likely, just what combat troops do — they would walk and talk and bomb and shoot like combat troops, but they’d be called something else. The New York Times spelled it out last December: describing how military planners believe Obama’s goal of pulling out combat troops “could be accomplished at least in part by re-labeling some units, so that those currently counted as combat troops could be ‘re-missioned,’ their efforts redefined as training and support for the Iraqis.” That would mean a retreat to the lies and deception that characterized this war during Bush years — something President Obama promised to leave behind. It would also mean military resistance in Iraq would continue, leading to more Iraqi and U.S. casualties.

Further, the U.S. agreement with Iraq calls for all U.S. forces to be out of Iraq by the end of December 2011. President Obama’s announcement later this week may even reflect something like this goal too. But. The agreement can be changed. Retired General Barry McCaffrey wrote an internal report for the Pentagon after a trip to Iraq last year, saying, “We should assume that the Iraqi government will eventually ask us to stay beyond 2011 with a residual force of trainers, counterterrorist capabilities, logistics, and air power. My estimate? Perhaps a force of 20,000 to 40,000 troops.”

And what if the reduction in ground troops is answered with an escalation of U.S. air power? The U.S. appears to be planning to control the skies over Iraq for years to come. That means even more Iraqi civilians being killed by the U.S. military. We need the withdraw all air and naval forces too — something the SOFA agreement mentions, but we have yet to hear anything from the Obama administration. The U.S. has been conducting continuous overflights and regular bombing of Iraq since January 1991 – isn’t 18 years of air war enough?

The U.S.-Iraq agreement (which was ratified by the Iraqi parliament but never brought to the U.S. Senate for ratification, as mandated by the Constitution) also requires that a national referendum be held in Iraq during the summer of 2009 to approve or reject the timetable. It is certainly possible that — if the referendum is held at all — a vast majority of Iraqis would call for an even earlier timeline, saying that two-and-a-half more years of occupation is too long. And it seems a real long-shot to imagine that the U.S. — despite the Obama administration’s commitment to diplomacy over force — would agree to abide by the popular will of the Iraqi people and pull out the troops immediately.

The military hasn’t been transformed with the election of President Obama. He is the commander in chief, but he has made clear his intention to listen to his military advisers (they pushed for the 19-month rather than 16-month withdrawal timeline). The oil companies and powerful contractors whose CEOs and stockholders have made billion dollar killings on Iraq contracts have not been transformed. Obama is president and has promised transparency in the contracting process, but he hasn’t promised to bring home all the mercenaries and contractors.

Mercenaries and Contractors

Ending the U.S. occupation means ending all U.S. funding for the giant contractors — Dyncorp, Bechtel, Blackwater — that serve as out-sourced private unaccountable components of the U.S. military. The contractor companies — and the mercenaries they hire — were part of what led to Abu Ghraib. (Blackwater’s recent name change to “Xe” should not allow its role in killing Iraqi civilians to be forgotten.) Even as some troops may be withdrawn, we will need to mobilize for congressional hearings, independent investigations, and more on the human rights violations and misuse of taxpayer funds by the war profiteers who run these companies. President Obama’s decision to close the Guantanamo prison shows his awareness of severity of the crimes committed there. Ending the funding of the contractors who carried out so many of those crimes should be a logical next step.

U.S. Military Bases

We’ve heard how long it will likely take to evacuate each of the 50+ U.S. military bases in Iraq (6 weeks for the small ones, 18 months for the biggest) but we haven’t heard any indication, let alone a promise, that they will actually be turned over to the Iraqis. The issue of bases places Iraq at the centerpiece of the broad global movement challenging the network of U.S. military bases all over the world. Opposition to the impact of those bases — environmental, social and women’s rights, economic and more — is rising in countries as diverse as Korea, Italy, Ecuador, Kyrgyzstan and more. In fact in some countries governments are joining with civil society to reject Washington’s global crusade. Kyrgyzstan decided to close the U.S. air base there, indicating they prefer Russian bribes to U.S. warplanes. (That decision may present the Obama administration with the unsavory prospect of renewing the U.S. alliance with Uzbekistan, whose government is characterized by some of the most egregious human rights violations in the world.) Ecuador has recently passed a new constitution prohibiting the presence of foreign military bases on their soil, and is in the process of ending its hosting of the U.S. airbase at Manta.

As the Obama administration seeks new ways to cut military spending, closing the 50+ Iraqi bases, particularly the five mega-bases becomes an urgent necessity. And the giant embassy-on-steroids that the Bush administration built to house up to 5,000 U.S. diplomats and officials should be closed down as a relic of an illegal war launched to maintain control of the country, people and resources of Iraq.

Ending Occupation?

Certainly almost three more years of acknowledged occupation is way too long. That’s almost half again as long as the U.S. occupation of Iraq has been going today. But even so, if this 19-month partial withdrawal really was a first step towards a complete end of the Iraq war and occupation, if this really meant that the troops in Iraq would be brought home instead of redeployed to another failing war in Afghanistan, if this really meant that President Obama’s promise that “I will end the war” was about to be made real — then 19 months wouldn’t be so bad.

Then, at last, we could begin making good on our real debt to the people of Iraq. Make good on the U.S. obligations for compensation (money to Iraqis themselves, not to overpaid U.S. contractors), for reparations (including for the years of society-destroying economic sanctions), for support for Iraqi-led international help in peacekeeping and in demilitarizing Iraq after so many years of occupation and war.

So far, though, we’re not seeing any of that. So far, there are too many “buts.” We know there is no military solution in Iraq – and continuing an “occupation lite” to muscle out competitors in oil contracts, or to maintain a power-expansion presence in the region, or to create the illusion of “peace with honor” — none of these things justify continuing an illegal U.S. occupation. Pulling out any troops from Iraq is a good thing. But so far, our job hasn’t ended — to mobilize, to pressure, to continue to educate and advocate and agitate for a real end to the war. We have a lot of work to do.

Phyllis Bennis is a fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies where she directs the New Internationalism project. Her books include Understanding the Palestinian-Israeli Conflict: A Primer and more recently Ending the Iraq War: A Primer.