Archive for February, 2009

Obama Announces Iraq Withdrawal Timetable

February 27, 2009

Today President Obama set a timetable for the withdrawal of American forces from Iraq.  According to the plan, all “combat” troops will leave by August 31, 2010, although the majority of this contingent will not begin to leave until next year because of security concerns in the run up to national elections in December.  Between 35,000 and 50,000 military personnel will remain in Iraq after the main withdrawal to train Iraqi security forces, conduct counterterrorism missions and protect civilians.  All US soldiers will be out of the country by the end of 2011.

 

Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Adm. Michael Mullen support the president’s decision.  They told lawmakers that American military commanders in Iraq believe that the timetable entails only moderate risks to security there.  Democratic leaders in Congress oppose leaving tens of thousands of troops in Iraq beyond August 2010.  Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said “When they talk about 50,000, that’s a little higher number than I anticipated.”  According to the New York Times, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi was “upset” that such a large contingent would remain, saying she did not understand “the justification.”  Leading Republicans support the concept including Sen. John McCain, Obama’s opponent in the 2008 presidential election.

 

For those who want a quick withdrawal of American troops from Iraq, there are reasons to be concerned about Obama’s plan.  A major increase in the level of violence may ensue in Iraq once the US starts to withdraw brigades, and US commanders there will be able to slow the pace of the withdrawal if they feel it is necessary to deal with the instability.  The status-of-forces agreement between the US and Iraq, which was reached during the presidency of George W. Bush, could even be altered if the Iraqi government decides it wants American combat troops to stay in country beyond 2011.  According to John McHugh, the ranking Republican on the House Armed Services Committee, Obama kept the option of keeping troops in Iraq longer open when he assured the congressman that he would revisit the plan if circumstances changed.

 

Leaving behind tens of thousands of “support” troops is also problematic.  Although they will ostensibly be there to train and assist the Iraqi security forces, the remaining personnel could easily assume combat roles if the situation deteriorates, much like the military “advisers” in Vietnam did in the 1960s.  McCain suggested that American soldiers will continue to go on combat patrols with the Iraqis even after the so-called “combat” troops leave in 2010.  “They’ll still be in harm’s way,” he said.  “There’s no doubt about it.”

 

Whether this plan is final or merely tentative remains to be seen.  If the level of violence spikes after the elections or another point during the scheduled drawdown one side of the Iraq debate is going to be disappointed, because the US will either continue to withdraw and let the situation deteriorate or stop the pullout and keep a large number of American troops in country.  Hopefully there will not be a major increase in instability and the withdrawal will be completed on time.

I Have Returned

February 26, 2009

I have returned from my death-related hiatus.  I will resume blogging tomorrow.

I Shall Return

February 19, 2009

Tomorrow I will be traveling out of town to attend my uncle’s funeral and spend time with family, and I will not be blogging for the next week or so.  But I shall return…

What Iran Wants

February 18, 2009

Last night on Charlie Rose, Iran experts Azar Nafisi, Hooman Majd and Vali Nasr discussed the current political state in Iran and its relationship with the US.  On the subject of possible negotiations between the two governments, they said that the Iranian regime wants the following things from the US:

-sanctions lifted

-the embargo lifted

-the release of Iranian assets frozen in American banks

-acknowledgement of Iran’s right to develop nuclear energy

-recognition of Iran as a regional power (one would assume that such recognition entails normalized diplomatic relations with the US, and inclusion in political discussions about Iraq and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict)

           

The US will certainly want the following things from Iran:

-the abandonment of Iran’s nuclear program (which US officials believe is a nuclear weapons program)

-a discontinuation of Iran’s support for terrorist groups such as Hezbollah

-an end to Iranian efforts to assist insurgents in Iraq and destabilize that country

 

Whether the US and Iran can reach an agreement on any of these issues if the two countries do in fact sit down for talks is uncertain.  It would largely depend on Iran’s willingness to abandon or at least freeze its nuclear program and put it under International Atomic Energy Agency inspection.  If Iran agreed to do that the Obama administration would likely be willing to lift economic sanctions, unfreeze Iranian assets and normalize relations if its recent overtures to North Korea are any indication of its position vis-à-vis Iran.

 

With regard to terrorism, sponsoring Hezbollah is the only way for Iran to project power in places like Lebanon and Israel-Palestine.  Iran might be willing to try to reign in Hezbollah while the Americans, Israelis, and Arabs try to find a peaceful solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in exchange for significantly improved relations with the US, but it is less likely that the Iranians would be amenable to breaking off ties to the group altogether.  The situation is also complicated by the fact that it is unclear exactly how much influence the Iranians have over Hezbollah, which is firmly rooted in the political and social life of Lebanon, and whether Iran would be able to restrain the militants during or after peace negotiations.

 

Agreeing to talk to the Iranians about the situation in Iraq would not even be a concession for the US because the Obama administration needs to persuade the Iranians to play a constructive role in that area as American troops withdraw from Iraq.  Thus far, Iran has been a source of instability there and may still perceive that it has an interest in preventing Iraq from being a stable, united country given the history of conflict between the two nations, but that view might change if the issue of Iraq is made part of a larger deal with the US.

 

Hopefully, the US and Iran will be able to reach an agreement with regard to Iran’s nuclear program and other contentious topics.  There are difficult obstacles to overcome, but both sides’ overall interests could be served by negotiating a diplomatic settlement even if all the issues between the two states are not resolved.

Pakistanis Make Deal with Taliban

February 16, 2009

On February 15, Pakistani officials signed a peace agreement with the Taliban that will allow the militants to impose sharia law in the Swat Valley of northwest Pakistan in exchange for laying down their arms.  The Taliban representative who negotiated the deal is Sufi Muhammad, a man who once led more than 1,000 Taliban fighters across the border into Afghanistan to engage US troops operating there.  Naturally, Western leaders did not react positively to this development.  NATO spokesman James Apathurai said:

“We should all be concerned by a situation in which extremists would have a safe haven. Without doubting the good faith of the Pakistani government, it is clear that the region is suffering very badly from extremists and we would not want it to get worse.”

 

Why not doubt the good faith of the Pakistani government?  It is clear that the Pakistani government is either unable or unwilling to subdue the militants in the tribal regions near the Afghan border.  There are certainly elements within the Pakistani intelligence service (ISI) that are pro-Taliban, and political and military leaders in Islamabad may not think battling the Taliban to satisfy Western allies is worth sustaining a large number of casualties.  It would be incredibly naïve for Pakistani officials to think that the Taliban will uphold their end of the peace agreement and lay down their arms given their repeated failure to do so in the past.  The Taliban are probably just buying time to strengthen their position in the region vis-à-vis the army and the local government.

 

 

Taliban and Al Qaeda have had a safe haven in Northwest Pakistan since 2001, when they fled there after the Taliban regime in Afghanistan was toppled by US troops and their Afghan allies, and will continue to have one unless the American government decides to send US ground forces into Pakistan to engage the militants there.  During the 2008 presidential campaign, candidate Barack Obama suggested that he might do just that if he were elected; now that he is president it will be interesting to see if he pursues that course of action.  Doing so is not without peril because such an incursion would undoubtedly inflame Pakistani public opinion against the US, and the new Pakistani administration, which many consider fragile, might be compelled to order its army to fight the American invaders or risk being toppled.  Pakistan possesses nuclear weapons, and many policymakers around the world are concerned that such weapons might fall into the wrong hands if there is political turmoil there. Another danger is that invading another Muslim country could engender more anti-Americanism around the world and create more terrorists.

 

 

The US now has only two options, both of which are bad: allow the Taliban and Al Qaeda to have a safe haven in Pakistan, or send troops there and hazard creating political upheaval with all of its implications.   I do not know what the right answer is.  In the past I thought that the US should roll the dice and go after Bin Laden and his allies with special operations units or perhaps larger army contingents, but now I am not so sanguine about the outcome of such a move.  If it were up to me I suppose that I would pursue the same policy that we are pursuing now, which is to only use aircraft to attack targets in Pakistan.