U.S. Troops Out of Iraq by End of 2011. Or Not.

The Associated Press reported over the weekend that the Obama administration was “abandoning plans to keep U.S. troops in Iraq past a year-end withdrawal deadline,…despite ongoing concerns about [Iraqi] security forces and the potential for instability.”

The decision ends months of hand-wringing by U.S. officials over whether to stick to a Dec. 31 withdrawal deadline that was set in 2008 or negotiate a new security agreement to ensure that gains made and more than 4,400 American military lives lost since March 2003 do not go to waste.

The story buys into the pro-war/pro-surge narrative by presuming that a longer security agreement could ensure, or was likely to ensure, that the gains would not be wasted. That is a dubious proposition, at best. Despite eight years of sacrifice by the men and women of the U.S. military, they never had it within their power to write Iraq’s future. Meanwhile, the Iraqis who do have the power to write that future have either squandered their opportunities to build a modern, tolerant society that could defend itself, or they weren’t very interested in doing so.

The scale of violence is way down from 2007 or 2008, but this has not ensured an enduring political order. Yochi Dreazen’s story in the current National Journal documents how Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki has consolidated power and systematically marginalized and intimidated his political rivals, including former prime minister Ayad Allawi, and that he has done this under the noses of tens of thousands of U.S. military personnel. Perhaps Malki would have been more imperious in the absence of a major U.S. presence? Perhaps he will become more so after the last of the U.S. troops leave? Who knows? The obvious point is that the political reconciliation that the surge was supposed to facilitate hasn’t materialized. Iraq remains a bitterly divided society, and it is likely to remain that way for a very long time.

Still, one would think that the news that this costly and counterproductive war – the one that was supposed to be a cakewalk, that was supposed to be paid for by Iraqi oil revenues – was mercifully, finally, coming to a close, would elicit a favorable response from a public that has grown weary of it.

Time to strike up the band?

Not yet. The White House and Pentagon both sprang into action with statements throwing cold water on the reports. No final decision had been made about the force that would remain in Iraq past the end of the year, they explained.

Plans for keeping a large force in place were “being scaled back,” The New York Times reported, but that didn’t mean that the U.S. military mission in Iraq would end.

Both countries are still discussing whether to keep some trainers in Iraq, although the number of troops is most likely to be far less than the 3,000 to 5,000 that the administration had discussed with Iraqi leaders, one of the American officials said….

The officials said the administration’s plans changed in recent weeks as it became clear that the Iraqi Parliament would not give legal immunity to the American troops, something the Pentagon had insisted would be needed if troops were to continue to operate here.

I learned last year, during a trip to the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia, that U.S. troops do occasionally deploy in countries without the protections of judicial extraterritoriality (we don’t have a formal agreement with the UAE, for example). The risk that U.S. military personnel might be subject to the vagaries of foreign justice systems might be justified in certain circumstances, but that doesn’t seem the case here. If the Iraqi people are not willing to offer that modest concession in exchange for the continued sacrifice of U.S. troops, and the continued expenditures of tens of billions of U.S. dollars, then we should bid them farewell.