According to the New York Times, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta is backing a plan to keep some 3,000-4,000 U.S. troops in Iraq past the end-of-year deadline, albeit only in a training role. This plan would violate President Obama's pledge to remove all U.S. troops by that time, but it is fewer troops than 14,000-18,000 figure that the military reportedly recommended.
But the real kicker comes later in the article, where the Times reports:
Even as the military reduces its troop strength in Iraq, the C.I.A. will continue to have a major presence in the country, as will security contractors working for the State Department ... "
The administration has already drawn up plans for an extensive expansion of the American Embassy and its operations, bolstered by thousands of paramilitary security contractors. It has also created an Office of Security Cooperation that, like similar ones in countries like Egypt, would be staffed by civilians and military personnel overseeing the training and equipping of Iraq's security forces.
Even without an extension of the deadline after 2011, that office is expected to be one of the largest in the world, with hundreds if not thousands of employees. Officials have previously suggested that keeping American soldiers in this office might not require a new security agreement to replace the expiring one since they would be cover by the same protection offered to diplomats (my emphasis)."
My question is: Whom do we think we are fooling? Surely not the Iraqis, who aren't likely to see much difference between U.S. soldiers and U.S. "paramilitary security contractors." Indeed, the Sadrist movement has already denounced these plans, and is holding a major demonstration in Baghdad today to demand a complete U.S. withdrawal. And we aren't fooling the remaining anti-American extremists in the rest of the region, who believe that the United States is an aggressive imperial power seeking to dominate the region with military force and who will use our remaining presence-no matter how it is camouflaged-as a recruiting tool.
The real answer, I suspect, is that we fooling ourselves. By removing most of the troops, and leaving behind CIA personnel and thousands of contractors, we are pretending to have fulfilled the pledge to leave Iraq. This will make it easier for Obama to claim that he ended an unpopular war and for Americans to think we won some sort of victory. Of course, the fact that the Pentagon still thinks we have to have troops there to "stabilize" the situation underscores how false the latter claim is. But one danger is that we will think we have left Iraq when we really haven't, and so we won't understand why many people there (and in neighboring countries) continue to see the United States as having designs on the region.
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Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.