The announcement of a date for American withdrawal from Iraq is good news. But before declaring the beginning of the end of that misbegotten conflict, we should consider the possibility we’re merely at the end of the beginning.

President Obama says he will withdraw all combat forces by the end of August 2010. If one were the ravingest socialist in the collective, one might point out that, during the election, he promised a quicker transition.

That’s not just a quibble about dates. The people who campaigned for Obama were overwhelmingly among those 64% of US adults who think the Iraq War not worth fighting. But Obama developed his new plan in consultation not with the peace movement but with the US military leadership, men who, like Secretary of Defense Secretary Robert M Gates (a former Bush appointee), always supported the occupation. And there’s more than one way to skin a cat.

So after the 2010 withdrawal, there will still be perhaps 50,000 US soldiers in Iraq. That’s a not inconsiderable figure, a force twice the size of the entire Australian standing army.

Then there’s the question of the infrastructure created by the occupation. In January this year, the Americans opened the biggest and most expensive embassy ever built. Here’s a description from Fox News:

The 104-acre compound, bigger than the Vatican and about the size of 80 football fields, boasts 21 buildings, a commissary, cinema, retail and shopping areas, restaurants, schools, a fire station, power and water treatment plants, as well as telecommunications and wastewater treatment facilities. The compound is six times larger than the United Nations compound in New York, and two-thirds the size of the National Mall in Washington. It has space for 1,000 employees with six apartment blocks and is 10 times larger than any other US embassy.

This imperial fortress cost $US 700 million. Will it now be closed, or will an independent Iraqi government be supposed to operate with a city-within-a-city looking over its shoulder?

The same question might be asked about military bases. When you or I think of an army camp, we imagine a few tents and a cookhouse. The American facilities in Iraq are not like that. There’s different figures circulating for the number of bases built, but there’s at least 11 of them that are simply gargantuan. The airbase in Balad, for instance, occupies a 25 square kilometer site, with a 20 kilometre exclusion zone outside that. It can hold 20,000 troops; it maintains its own daily newspaper.

Again, such facilities cost billions to construct. Do we really think they will now all be closed?

According to the Status of Forces Agreement between Iraq and the US, all the troops are supposed to leave by 2011. Obama’s committed himself to that date but others in his administration seem substantially less certain. Gates apparently favours “a small force” remaining after 2011; Jeremy Scahill quotes senior military commanders talking about large numbers of soldiers remaining in Iraq for the next 15 to 20 years.

The SOFA contains, after all, sufficient loopholes through which to drive an M1 Abrams tank. Article 27, for instance, allows the US to undertake military action, “or any other measure”, inside Iraq in response to “any external or internal threat or aggression against Iraq”.

It’s not hard to imagine the development of internal threats sufficient to trigger such clauses. Iraq might be more stable now than in 2006 but there’s still all kinds of tensions simmering beneath the surface. Thomas Ricks, who has written extensively on Iraq, puts it like this:

[The surge] was intended to improve security and lead to a breathing space where political breakthroughs could occur. None occurred. None of the basic questions facing Iraq have been addressed: sharing oil revenue; the basic power relationship between Sunni, Shia, and Kurd; the shape of the country — strong central government or loose federation; what’s the state of Iran or the status of Kirkuk? We are keeping the lid on things now, we are the glue holding things together.

Things need glue after they’ve been systematically broken, and that’s a pretty good description of Iraq. There’s various estimates of the deaths produced by the invasion, running as high as the 1.2 million figure arrived at in 2007 by the British polling firm Opinion Research Business. That would mean that, with its population of 30 million, Iraq has suffered proportionally higher losses than Germany in the First World War: the kind of trauma that haunts a society for a generation or more. With the collapse of oil prices hitting the Iraq economy hard, you wouldn’t bet on the prospects for long-term stability.

Why then would the US want to stay? Simply, Iraq’s in a strategic area, and the prospect of controlling its affairs into the indefinite future might prove too tempting to ignore. For what it’s worth, here’s Ricks take:

I think we’re there for many years to come — Gen. Odierno says he’d like to see 30,000 troops there in maybe 2015, well into Obama’s second term, and I think that’s probably a pretty accurate view.

In any case, there’s a final point that talk about an end to the Iraq war obscures. The reduction in troop numbers in Iraq is explicitly intended to allow an escalation of the increasingly bloody mission Afghanistan. But that’s another story.

Peter Fray

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