Wednesday, August 04, 2010

Obama and the Politics of Troop Withdrawal

On Wednesday 3rd August 2010 Barack Obama in a speech to a packed audience at the national convention of the Disabled American Veterans in Atlanta, Georgia, confirmed the end of all combat operations in Iraq by the end of August 2010. The thrust of Obama's speech was the fulfilment of his campaign promise to end the Iraq war, which was a defining feature of his 2008 candidacy.

Barack Obama inherited George W. Bush's plan that called for coalition forces to help create a viable Iraqi national military and security force that would maintain central government's authority and Iraq's territorial cohesion and integrity. However the apparent stability that has been achieved in Iraq has been through co-opting various war lords, tribal leaders, Iran, Syria and numerous other factions. It is these factions that have integrated themselves into America's political settlement for Iraq and through this their own interests.

Obama's election campaign pledge was to systematically reduce US presence in Iraq by around the summer of 2010. For the American public who were originally sold a short war with shock and awe tactics giving way to a quick victory, troop reduction became the measure of success.

Today around 100,000 US troops remain in Iraq. The drawdown that was planned to begin in earnest following Iraq's parliamentary elections in March 2010, never took place due to the US constructed Iraqi political system descending into factionalism. The plan was to have around 50,000 support and advisory troops remaining in Iraq by the end of August, who could then be withdrawn.

Much of this was dependent upon a successful election in March and the appointment of a president by the different factions. The result of the elections however resulted in the return of violence as many refused to accept the outcome, today the new government has still not taken office. It should be remembered that the various deals the US made to establish its political solution to Iraq has only remained intact due to the US armed forces being present in large numbers in Iraq and with Iranian proxies partaking in Iraq's central government. America's political settlement has always remained tentative at best and with the various factions engaging in ethno-sectarian violence the removal of US troops would be a disaster in the current situation.

Combat most certainly will not end, nor will the troops stop engaging in it. Rather, the US administration has decided to redefine the 50,000 combat troops that will still be in Iraq, still engaging in combat, as a "transitional" force. The transnational force will focus on training, advising, assisting and providing support but it should be remembered that most of the units carrying out training and advisory functions are retooled combat formations.

The sheer logistical challenge of moving vehicles, equipment and military hardware and handing over facilities to the Iraqis is virtually impossible in a month. The level of US soldiers in Iraq has dropped slightly since Obama took office, large portions of these troops were "transitioned" straight into Afghanistan, and with violence still on the rise the US role in Iraq is unlikely to be ending any time soon.

The US was banking on bringing the military aspect of its invasion to an end through co-opting the various factions to lay down their arms in return for positions in the US constructed political system. This would have brought the violence down to a more manageable level which would have allowed the reduction in US troop levels. This has not happened and all of this places the US in a much weaker position compared to when it went into Iraq. In fact the world today is much different to the global situation when the US invaded Iraq. Today the US military has been humbled and is considered overstretched. This has allowed countries such as Russia and China to become much more aggressive and confident in challenging US in different regions in the world.

The timing of this announcement takes place with approval ratings of Obama at historic lows, the ‘hope for change' has evaporated and Obama even struggled to get through his one success - the healthcare bill, which ever since has been fraught by restrictions by elements form his own party. Obama makes this speech with mid-term elections due on the 2nd November 2010, with the democrat's chances looking increasingly dim and with the Republicans on the rise due to Obama's apparent failings, it appears Obama may for once not be able to talk his way of this one.

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