Views on a new Near East
Friday April 18th 2014

Reasons to keep our word – US withdrawal from Iraq

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By Lawrence J. Korb and Alexander Rothman

Lawrence J. Korb (pictured) is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress and former assistant secretary of defense in the Reagan administration.

Alexander Rothman is a Special Assistant at the Center for American Progress.

The United States’ long and bloody nightmare in Iraq appears to be coming to a close as the clock ticks down towards December 31, 2011, the deadline for complete US withdrawal under the 2008 US-Iraq Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA). What remains to be seen is what sort of Iraq will be left behind.

Nine years after the US invasion, Iraq is far from the ‘model for democracy’ envisioned by the Bush administration when it invaded and occupied the country. Instead, stability is now the US’ primary policy goal for the country.

In recent months, a number of prominent political and military officials have argued that, despite the terms of the SOFA, the United States should maintain a military presence in Iraq past the end of the year in order to preserve hard won security gains in the country. On a trip to Iraq in April of 2011, then-Secretary of Defense, Robert Gates, told troops that the US could remain in Iraq for “years to come.”1

That same month, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Michael Mullen, publicly pressed the Iraqi government to make a decision about whether US troops could stay,2 while Senator Lindsay Graham, one of the cheerleaders for the 2003 invasion, announced that without American troops, Iraq could “go to hell.”3 And just weeks ago, in August 2011, the Iraqi government agreed to begin negotiations to keep a small number of US troops in the country past the December 31 deadline, primarily as trainers for the Iraqi security forces.4

While renegotiating the deadline for withdrawal might have some short term benefits and ease the concerns of some US military commanders, it would not only run counter to US interests across the globe but also present serious obstacles to Iraqi stability. Going back on their word and maintaining a US troop presence in Iraq would create problems in Iraqi domestic politics, undermine US credibility abroad, and divert resources away from other, more important policy priorities, like shoring up the US economy. Even Army Chief of Staff and former commander of US forces in Iraq, General Ray Odierno, recently warned that there comes a time when it becomes counterproductive to leave too many troops in Iraq and that the Iraqis “have to be self-reliant now.”5

US troops cannot remain in Iraq indefinitely, and it is unclear what they will be able to accomplish next year, that they have not been able to accomplish in the past nine. As a result, President Obama should follow through on his 2008 campaign pledge to end the war in Iraq and withdraw the US’ 47,000 remaining troops by the end of 2011 in accordance with the SOFA.


The Legal Framework for US Occupation

The UN Security Council never authorised the Iraq War, but between 2003 and 2007 the council passed yearly resolutions approving the presence of foreign troops in Iraq, thereby effectively legitimising the US occupation. In 2008, however, at the request of the Iraqi government, the Security Council allowed this mandate to expire. In order to legitimise a continued US presence in the country, the United States and the government of Iraq negotiated a bilateral agreement that authorised the presence of US troops in Iraq but also outlined a specific timeline for their withdrawal. The so-called SOFA required all American troops to withdraw from Iraqi cities to their bases by June 30, 2009 and set a deadline of December 31, 2011 for complete US withdrawal from the country.6

Just weeks after taking office in early 2009, President Obama announced that he would honour the deadlines in the SOFA and “remove all US troops from Iraq by the end of 2011.”7 In the two years since, Obama has followed through on this pledge, overseeing the withdrawal of US troops to their bases in June 2009 and declaring an end to the US combat mission in the country in August 2010. As a result, authorising a continued troop presence in Iraq would be a major shift in President Obama’s policy towards Iraq and likely have significant repercussions on both US and Iraqi domestic politics.


The US Military and Iraqi Domestic Politics

Unsurprisingly, the presence of US troops in Iraq is a controversial subject in Iraqi domestic politics. American occupation remains extremely unpopular due to the widespread devastation brought on by the Iraq War, which claimed the lives of more than 125,000 civilians and caused one out of every ten Iraqi families to flee their homes.8

It is important to remember that the pressure for the withdrawal of US troops came from the Iraqi government. After the expiration of the UN mandate in 2008, it was Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki who forced the Bush administration to accept the deadlines of the SOFA, even though President Bush was wary of hard deadlines. Similarly, after US troops withdrew from Iraqi cities to their bases in 2009, Maliki announced to a jubilant populace, “we have repelled the invaders.” Maliki has repeatedly asserted that US troops would leave Iraq in accordance with the SOFA.9

Prime Minister Maliki’s harsh rhetoric towards the presence of US troops stems largely from the domestic political realities that he faces. In January 2009, cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, leader of the Sadrist opposition party in Iraq, announced he would withdraw his support for Maliki’s government should he allow the US to keep troops in Iraq past 2011,10 and he has even threatened to recreate his Mahdi Army if that should happen.11 Moreover, Iran, which has close ties to al-Sadr and supported Maliki’s efforts to form a government after the 2010 parliamentary elections, also opposes a continued US troop presence.12 Should al-Sadr and the Iranian government both withdraw their support for Maliki, his government could collapse, creating chaos, once more, in the country. As a result, maintaining US bases in Iraq could be more destabilising than the US troop withdrawal. In addition, the insurgents in Iraq, with help from Iran, could increase attacks on US forces.13


The al-Qaeda Narrative and US Interests Abroad

Keeping forces in Iraq beyond the agreed upon date would also have a serious impact on the US’ international image. Extending the presence of US troops in Iraq would appear to legitimise the al-Qaeda narrative that the United States seeks to conquer and occupy countries of the Muslim world. Al-Qaeda was not indigenous to Iraq; rather it sprang up in the country in response to the US invasion and occupation as well as perceived American imperialism. Maintaining a troop presence in Iraq would lend credibility to al-Qaeda’s recruiting abilities in all areas in which they operate – Pakistan, the Arabian Peninsula, the Islamic Maghreb and so forth.

Perhaps most significantly, deviating from the terms of the SOFA would jeopardise ongoing efforts to negotiate with the Taliban in Afghanistan. The Taliban are unlikely to accept a negotiated settlement with the Karzai government if they do not trust US military forces to leave Afghanistan completely by an agreed upon date. Renegotiating the SOFA in Iraq would send a message to the Taliban that an agreement for withdrawal does not necessarily mean withdrawal will happen.

Prioritising the invasion of Iraq in 2003 over securing gains in Afghanistan undermined US interests by creating a quagmire in that country. Leaving troops in Iraq beyond this year would do so again.


The Cost of War

Finally, maintaining a troop presence in Iraq would divert resources from other key US interests, overseas and at home. Since 9-11, the defence budget has skyrocketed to levels not seen since World War II, when the US had 12 million people under arms and waged war on three continents. Since 2001, defence spending has grown by more than 70 per cent, with total defence expenditures reaching or topping US$700 billion a year.14

Since 2003, the direct costs of the war in Iraq have exceeded US$800 billion.15 This total does not include future war-related expenses for veterans care or increased interest payments on the national debt, which raise the cost of the war into the trillions.16 At a time when senior defence department officials, like Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Michael Mullen, are calling the national debt the “biggest threat” to US security, the United States can no longer afford to fight two large overseas land wars.17 Moreover, given the weak state of the US economy, these overseas operations divert taxpayer dollars from critical investments at home. The defence budget now comprises 20 per cent of the overall federal budget and 50 per cent of discretionary spending. If the US is to get its fiscal house in order, the Obama administration and Congress will need to bring military spending down to more sustainable levels. Removing all our troops from Iraq by the end of this year would be a smart first step.


The road to a stable Iraq leads through US withdrawal. But removing American troops from the country does not mean the US will disengage. Through the State Department and USAID, America can still provide aid, assistance and non-military programs to maintain ties between the two countries.

Iraq does not pose and has never posed an existential threat to the United States. And the government in Baghdad will never be the backbone of US power or prosperity. The strength of our economy, however, will. Given the fiscal woes facing the United States today, it is time for the US to reassess its policy priorities.

After eight years of military operations, carried out at a tremendous cost in blood and treasure for both countries, the United States has not been able to remove the root causes of conflict in Iraq. Extending our military presence is not likely to do so and would compromise other American interests at home and around the globe. It is time to place the future of Iraq, finally, in the hands of the Iraqi people and for our troops to withdraw with the dignity they deserve.

1. Kevin Baron, “Gates: US Troops Could Stay in Iraq for Years,” Stars and Stripes, April 8, 2011,

2. “Mullen: Iraq Must Decide over US Troop Stay Request,” BBC News, April 22, 2011,

3. Lucy Madison, “Graham: Iraq May ‘Go to Hell’ without US Troops,” CBS News, April 3, 2011,

4. Ned Parker and Raheem Salman, “Iraq, US to Discuss Extended Stay for Troops,” Los Angeles Times, August 3, 2011,,0,3545876.story

5. Kevin Baron, “Odierno: Leaving toomany troops in Iraq would be ‘counterproductive,” Stars and Stripes, September 8, 2011,

6. Chuck R. Mason, “US-Iraq Withdrawal/Status of Forces Agreement: Issues for Congressional Oversight,” Congressional Research Service, December 12, 2008.

7. President Barack Obama, “Responsibly Ending the War in Iraq,” Speech at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, February 27, 2009,

8. Watson Institute for International Studies, “Cost of War: Iraqi Civilian Casualties,”; Watson Institute for International Studies, “Cost of War: Iraqi Refugees,”

9. Martin Chulov, “Iraq: cleric warns Maliki of walkout if US troops stay,” The Guardian, January 9, 2011,; “Maliki: No US Troops in Iraq Beyond 2011,”, December 29, 2010,

10. Martin Chulov, “Iraq: cleric warns Maliki of walkout if US troops stay,” The Guardian, January 9, 2011,

11. Tim Craig and Asad Majeed, ‘In Iraq, Sadr’s militia set for big protest,” Washington Post, May 25, 2010,

12. Martin Chulov, “Iran brokers behind-the-scenes deal for pro-Tehran government in Iraq,” The Guardian, October 17, 2010,

13. Yochi J. Dreazen, “Record Number of U.S. Troops Killed by Iranian Weapons,” National Journal, July 29, 2011,

14. Department of Defense, “National Defense Budget Estimates for FY 2012,” March 2011, p. 123-128,

15. Amy Belasco, “The Cost of Iraq, Afghanistan, and Other War on Terror Operations since 9/11,” Congressional Research Service, March 29, 2011, p. 7,

16. Watson Institute for International Studies, “Cost of War: Economic Costs Summary,”

17. “Adm. Mike Mullen: ‘National Debt Is Our Biggest Security Threat,’” Huffington Post, June 24, 2010,

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