CFR: Beginning of Iraq Endgame

When Secretary of Defense Robert Gates accepted President-elect Barack Obama's invitation to stay on as Pentagon chief, the lifelong Republican pointed to a pair of freshly inked security accords with Iraq as influencing his decision. The once-ardent opponent of a firm departure date from Iraq said the just-completed Status of Forces Agreement and companion strategic framework convinced him that debate in Iraq was no longer over when to leave, but rather how. The timetable "bridge has been crossed," Gates told reporters on December 2. "The question is, how do we do this in a responsible way?"

Passage of the accords has been welcomed from Baghdad to Washington, with some experts dubbing it the beginning of the end of the Iraq war. Yet for all the anticipation of Iraqi sovereignty, military analysts say the U.S. exit strategy may not be any clearer today (TNR) than it was before the SOFA's passage. "The challenge, of course, is that with the new Status of Forces Agreement ... we're going to have fewer resources devoted to Iraq and less authority there," says Brookings Mideast expert Kenneth M. Pollack. In a letter to U.S. troops (PDF) after the security deals were inked, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, Gen. Raymond T. Odierno, warned that the agreements "will require a subtle shift in how we plan, coordinate, and execute missions throughout Iraq." Directions for how these changes will be implemented have not been passed on to U.S. troops.

There are also questions about the security agreements' legal longevity. Loopholes and the potential for renegotiation suggest withdrawal timelines may be amended, experts say. According to retired Gen. Barry R. McCaffrey, whose reports on Iraq have become required reading for Iraq war observers, the Pentagon "should assume that the Iraqi government will eventually ask us to stay beyond 2011 with a residual force of trainers, counter-terrorist capabilities, logistics, and air power." Even President-elect Obama has hinted he might adjust (NYT) his sixteen-month withdrawal pledge. British forces, however, could begin withdrawing as early as March 2009 (BBC).

Among the most discussed changes outlined by the deals are requirements that U.S. combat troops leave Iraqi "cities, villages, and localities" by June 30, 2009; coordinate missions with the Iraqi government; hand over prisoners to Iraqi authorities; and relinquish control of the Green Zone. Doug Brooks, president of the International Peace Operations Association, a trade group representing security contractors, tells another potentially disruptive change gives Iraqis jurisdiction over contractors. Over one hundred thousand contractors augment the U.S. mission in Iraq, providing services from security to food service. The killing of Iraqi civilians by contracted security guards in September 2007 severely damaged U.S.-Iraq relations, but supporters say Washington could not do its job without civilian help. "U.S. government employees still maintain certain protections [under the SOFA] but civilians supporting them do not," says Brooks, who estimates 160,000 civilian contractors are employed by the Pentagon alone. "The question is how far has the Iraqi legal and penal system come since Saddam. We don't think it's up to international standards."

Critics of all stripes see other reasons to question the much-delayed accords and the future U.S. role in Iraq. Radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, a virulent U.S. opponent, argued the deal is full of holes that could allow for a complete reversal. Sunni lawmakers inserted language in the legislation passing both agreements that called for a nationwide referendum this summer, essentially giving the Iraqi public an opportunity to junk the accord. Internal political rifts have also emerged during the year in which the agreements were negotiated, especially between major Shiite parties closely linked to Iran, which long opposed the accords. In the end, the true winner may be Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who, argues Iraq analyst Reidar Visser, gained the upper hand at the expense of American leverage.