FPI Fact Sheet: The Case for a Continued U.S. Military Presence in Iraq after 2011

September 15, 2011

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Although America’s combat mission in Iraq officially ended in August 2010, as of September 2011, roughly 45,000 U.S. troops remain as advisors as Iraqi Security Forces assume lead responsibility for their nation’s security.  With this residual American force’s assistance, more than 600,000 Iraqi troops have been able to keep internal violence at levels far below the insurgency’s peak of 2006 and 2007, safeguarding the security and stability needed for Iraq’s fledgling democracy to succeed. Indeed, due to the political progress made possible by U.S.-Iraqi military cooperation, in May 2011 then-Secretary of Defense Robert Gates described Iraq as “a multi-sectarian, multi-ethnic society in the Arab world that shows that democracy can work.”

The future of U.S.-Iraqi military cooperation looks uncertain, however.  At the end of 2011, the current Status of Forces Agreement (known also as a “security agreement”) will require all American troops to leave the country, unless Washington and Baghdad succeed before year’s end in hammering out a new agreement to permit a continued U.S. military presence in Iraq.  Although officials in the Obama administration previously indicated that they were open to an ongoing U.S. presence, the Iraqi government has struggled to make its desires known given ongoing political positioning.  In early September 2011, several news organizations reported that Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta had proposed to the White House a residual presence of only 3,000-to-4,000 U.S. troops after the end of this year.  This number is significantly smaller than what U.S. military commanders have reportedly recommended.

Given that Iraqi Security Forces still heavily rely on American capabilities for logistics, intelligence gathering, and naval and airspace defense, if the United States does not leave adequate forces in Iraq, it will leave Iraq more vulnerable to internal and external threats, thus imperiling the hard-fought gains in security and governance made there in recent years.  It is also essential that the U.S. military maintain a significant troop presence at multiple places along Iraq’s "disputed internal boundaries" to allow the United States to assist Kurds and Arabs in the disputed zones with confidence-building.

Answers to questions now being posed about America’s long-term strategic interests in Iraq are outlined below.

Why is the U.S. military still in Iraq?

American forces are in Iraq to assist that nation’s military as part of a larger strategic effort to help the Iraqi people sustain and strengthen the fledgling pluralistic and democratic state that was established after U.S. and allied forces toppled Saddam Hussein and his regime in 2003. 

Under the terms of the November 2008 security agreement, the U.S. military is equipping, training and advising the Iraqi Security Forces, as well as partnering with them in targeted counterterrorism operations against insurgents and other militants.  The United States is also helping Iraq’s military to compensate for their critical capability gaps in logistics, intelligence gathering, and naval and airspace defense against potential external threats, as well as to eventually field these capabilities themselves.  Finally, Iraqi troops are working with the U.S. military to continually reassure all ethno-sectarian groups that political aims can be achieved without resort to violence.

With America’s assistance, Iraq’s military has successfully preserved and built upon the gains in internal security made since the insurgency’s height several years ago.  For example, whereas Iraqi and U.S. forces faced a daily average of nearly 200 attacks in 2007, they are now facing roughly 14 attacks per day in 2011.  That said, Iraq still faces serious internal security challenges.  As Michael O’Hanlon of the Brooking Institution wrote in the Washington Times:

“Iraq has come a long way, with a 95 percent reduction in violence since the terrible days of 2005-07 and the formation of a new government after March 2010 elections that initially led to a prolonged political paralysis.  But it is nowhere near being out of the woods.  Bombings and killings continue with the potential to result in high-level assassinations or other tragedies.  We should bear in mind not only the specific stresses still tearing at its people and politics, but the basic fact that nations coming out of civil wars fall back into conflict up to half the time.  To increase the risk of that kind of outcome here would be a terrible shame after all that has been accomplished—and a huge setback for U.S. strategic interests in the region.”

What will happen to Iraq if the U.S. military completely withdraws or leaves behind only a small force?

With the assistance of American troops, the Iraqi Security Forces have made significant gains in internal security, thus preserving the space necessary for political progress and reconciliation to continue.  However, if the U.S. military withdraws completely or leaves behind only a small residual force after 2011, Iraq will become increasingly vulnerable to internal and external threats to its security.

Iraq’s internal security and long-term stability face challenges from militia groups, especially those funded and armed by rival foreign governments.  While al-Qaeda in Iraq no longer presents the grave threat that it did prior to the so-called Sunni Awakening, Iraqi Security Forces still remain on guard against its dangerous remnants.  Moreover, three Shiite militia groups in Iraq have received significant weapons and financial assistance from Iran:  Kata’ib Hezbollah (Hezbollah Brigades), the Promised Day Brigade, and Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq (League of the Righteous).

  • Kata’ib Hezbollah is a highly decentralized group of about 1,000 militants, whose main aim is to attack American military and civilian personnel.  The U.S. military’s top spokesman in Iraq, Major General Jeffrey S. Buchanan, told MSNBC News that the group is “almost exclusively reliant on Iran.”  Kata’ib Hezbollah reportedly receives aid from the Quds Force, a special unit of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, and has become known for using Iranian-origin improvised rocket-assisted mortars (IRAMs) in sophisticated attacks.
  • The Promised Day Brigade is linked to Muqtada al-Sadr, an influential Shiite figure in Iraq whose political party holds almost 40 seats in the country’s parliament.  The group is seen as the successor to the Mahdi Army, which al-Sadr disbanded in 2008.  While it has been reported that al-Sadr has tried to limit Tehran’s influence on the Promised Day Brigade, he still allows it to accept Iranian money and weapons.
  • Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq, a splinter Sadrist group competing with the Promised Day Brigade, reportedly receives as much as $5 million in cash and weapons from the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps every month.  Its leaders are based in Iran.  Muqtada al-Sadr apparently does not back this group.

In recent months, as U.S. and Iraqi officials discussed post-2011 planning, Iran used these proxy groups in an attempt to create the impression that it is chasing American forces from Iraq.  Attacks by these Iranian-backed groups spiked, with 15 American soldiers killed in June 2011.  As Admiral Mike Mullen, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said:  “Iran is very directly supporting extremist Shia groups (in Iraq), which are killing our troops ….  [Iranians want to] be able to claim that they had something to do with us leaving.”  However, Iraqi and U.S. troops subsequently made progress in containing the violence of these groups, with 5 American soldiers killed in July 2011 and none in August 2011.

Iraq also faces long-term challenges not only from Iranian-backed militia groups, but also from Iran’s growing conventional military.  As Max Boot of the Council on Foreign Relations wrote in The Wall Street Journal:

“Iraq has no fighter aircraft and no air-control system.  It has only some 70 tanks and no artillery.  Its army has almost no experience in combined-arms warfare, having devoted the last eight years, for understandable reasons, to counterinsurgency operations ….  That makes it easy prey for Iran, its historic rival.  This doesn’t mean that an Iranian invasion is likely.  Yet Iranian bullying and influence-peddling is going on all the time, and if Iraq can't defend its borders, Tehran will have an extra element of coercive leverage ….  [L]eaving Iraq entirely would be an act of folly.  We are still in Kosovo, South Korea and other post-conflict zones that are far more stable.  We need to be in Iraq too.”

Unless a sizable U.S. presence remains after the end of this year, the State Department reportedly plans to rely on 5,000 or more private contractors for protection, escorted travel, and other security functions.  However, experts question whether diplomats—even if augmented by a small army of private contractors—can substitute for the capabilities and capacity of U.S. troops.  A recent report by Ramzy Mardini and Marisa Cochrane Sullivan of the Institute for the Study of War noted that:

“An expanded Office of Security Cooperation-Iraq (OSC-I) is not a realistic replacement for U.S. forces beyond 2011.  Currently, OSC-I will consist of 157 military personnel, with several thousand contracted trainers.  OSC-I will focus on Foreign Military Sales and training Iraqis on purchased equipment.  Even if OSC-I were to be expanded, or supplemented with additional private contractors, the office will not have the capacity for complex combined-arms and collective training that is required for an external defense capability.”

As the American Enterprise Institute’s Frederick Kagan and the Institute for the Study of War’s Kimberly Kagan wrote in The Weekly Standard:

“The notion that soft power can replace American military forces in Iraq on January 1, 2012, fundamentally misjudges the situation on the ground.  The tenuous peace along the northern Arab-Kurd seam is maintained by the presence of tripartite peacekeeping forces in which American ground troops play a decisive role.  The withdrawal of those forces would almost certainly lead to the collapse of the peacekeeping agreement and might lead to the collapse of the peace itself. Without the continued presence of American military advisers, Iraq’s security forces will be inadequate to meet the challenges from Iranian-backed militias and Sunni revanchist groups including Al Qaeda in Iraq.” 

How many troops should the United States seek to keep in Iraq?

When President Obama assumed office in January 2009, 144,000 U.S. troops were in Iraq as part of a multinational coalition.  As of September 2011, there are approximately 45,000 U.S. troops on the ground in Iraq. 

After 2011, the United States would require a comparatively modest troop commitment to help the Iraqi Security Forces maintain internal stability and build up capability to defend against external threats.  As Frederick and Kimberly Kagan wrote in The Weekly Standard:

“Nothing requires us to keep massive numbers of American troops in Iraq.  Twenty thousand soldiers would be enough for the next several years.  That number is smaller than the American military presence in Korea, Japan, and Germany.  Nor would those forces be engaged in combat.  The 50,000-odd U.S. troops in Iraq today are occupied primarily with peacekeeping, training, supporting the Iraqi Security Forces, and counterterrorism.  These are missions Americans would continue to undertake in 2012 and beyond.  Nor is there any need to pour money into Iraq to support the modernization and development of the Iraqi Security Forces—Iraq has more than enough money to pay for itself.  What Iraq requires are trainers, foreign suppliers, and, above all, supporters.  To extend the American military presence in Iraq would not be a commitment to endless war or large expenditures.  It would reap the benefit of the cost in blood and treasure that the United States has already paid.”

As part of future U.S.-Iraqi military cooperation, the United States should also help Iraq to develop conventional military forces capable in the long-term of defending its territorial integrity, and countering and balancing against Iran and other potential rivals.  In a May 2011 analysis, Frederick Kagan concluded:

“… Iraqi military planners would need to design and field a military capable of protecting the Iraqi state with or without U.S. assistance.  An Iraqi military designed to deter, repel, and retaliate against the range of Iranian military options would therefore be an imposing force in the region.  Such an Iraqi military would rival that of Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Jordan, and even Syria, unsettling the current military balance and possibly sparking a regional arms race.”

In early September 2011, news reports suggested that the White House is considering leaving only a residual force of 3,000-to-4,000 U.S. troops in Iraq after the end of this year.  However, this number is significantly smaller than what U.S. military commanders on the ground have reportedly recommended and would limit our ability to ensure that Iraq remains stable and free from significant foreign influence in the years to come.  As Max Boot wrote in The Weekly Standard:

“That is far below the figure recommended by U.S. Forces-Iraq under the command of General Lloyd Austin.  It has been reported that Gen. Austin asked for 14,000 to 18,000 personnel—enough to allow his command to train and support Iraqi security forces, conduct intelligence gathering, carry out counterterrorism strikes, support U.S. diplomatic initiatives, prevent open bloodshed between Arabs and Kurds, and deter Iranian aggression.  To perform, in other words, at least a few of the crucial tasks that U.S. troops have been carrying out in Iraq since the success of the surge in 2007 and 2008.”

What should be done to facilitate a new U.S.-Iraqi security agreement?

For many months now, Iraq’s political and military leaders have been confused about America’s long-term intentions in their country, citing the Obama administration’s passivity on even initiating talks with Baghdad for a new security agreement.  As the Institute for the Study of War’s Ramzy Mardini and Marisa Cochrane Sullivan reported after their July 2011 visit to Iraq:

“The initial U.S. position to hold off on negotiations until Iraq formally requested a continued U.S. presence was a gross misreading of the realities of Iraqi politics and how decisions are ultimately made in Iraq.  Many Iraqis voiced criticism of the defensive posture the U.S. had initially taken regarding a new security agreement.  They believed such a negotiating style had ignored the experiences of government formation and arranging the 2008 Security Agreement.  Waiting for others never prompts action in Iraq.  The political sensitivities and the disputes between rival Iraqi political factions made it highly unlikely that the Iraqis themselves would publicly request a troop extension prior to any extensive private negotiations.  As a result, months of negotiating time have been lost.”

Recent reports that the administration is contemplating a presence in Iraq beyond 2011 well below the numbers suggested by military experts and key Iraqi allies will likely only cause additional confusion. 

To improve chances for a new security agreement at this late date, the United States should publicly articulate its vision for the future U.S.-Iraqi strategic partnership—especially, the cooperative military dimensions of that partnership.  In particular, Iraqi political and military leaders say they want to hear more interested and constructive statements from President Obama himself about America’s role in Iraq.  As Mardini and Sullivan wrote:

“[Key officials in Iraq] mention that Vice President Biden visits and calls, but President Obama rarely mentions Iraq, and only in the context of troop withdrawal.  Iraqis often stated their belief that President Obama lacks interest in their country.  Iraqis emphasized to us that they would like President Obama to speak about engagement and the unfinished business left for the U.S. in Iraq....”

Below the level of Presidential statement, senior administration officials can help explain and reiterate to key Iraqi stakeholders the importance of a continuing U.S. military presence in Iraq.  As Frederick and Kimberly Kagan wrote in The Weekly Standard:

“The ball is not in Maliki’s court.  It is in Obama’s court.  If the administration understands that American interests in Iraq and throughout the Middle East are best served by supporting an independent Iraq and cementing a long-term U.S.-Iraqi relationship, then the White House must take the initiative.  The administration must stop signaling that it can take Iraq or leave it and instead signal a determination to stand by Iraq’s leaders as long as those leaders stand by the democratic processes now tenuously in place and commit to the ethno-sectarian peace achieved at such a high price.  The administration must make clear to the Kurds that there will be no American support for them now or in the future unless they throw their weight behind a new agreement between Washington and Baghdad ….  Above all, the administration must stop using Iraqi missteps in forming their current government as an excuse to put off discussion of the U.S.-Iraq security partnership.”

The United States has long-term strategic interests in Iraq.  As Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta said on August 16, 2011:

“We’ve invested a lot of blood in that country, and regardless of whether you agree or disagree as to how we got into it, the bottom line is that we now have, through a lot of sacrifice, established a relatively stable democracy that’s trying to work together to lead that country.  And it happens to be a country that is in a very important region of the world at a time when there’s a lot of other turmoil going on.  It is very important for us to make sure that we get this right.”


America has invested thousands of lives and billions of dollars in Iraq since 2003.  Iraq has already begun to serve as an emerging model for its neighbors, many of which are beginning their own long transitions to democracy.  Meanwhile, Iraq’s neighbor Iran remains one of the greatest threats to America’s interests and allies as it continues to seek a nuclear weapons capability. 

The Obama administration should thus rethink its reported plans to leave only a notional presence of 3,000-to-4,000 or so U.S. troops in Iraq beyond the end of this year.  As Michael O’Hanlon wrote in The National Interest:

“What three thousand troops cannot do is have a meaningful presence on the ground.  They cannot interpose themselves in tense spots.  They cannot participate in confidence-building missions in places where Iraqi nerves may be on edge and various parties may need reassurance.  They cannot go out on joint patrols and man joint checkpoints with Iraqi army and police forces as well as Kurdish peshmerga in those parts of northern Iraq where territories remain contested.  They cannot, in short, help buy more time for Iraq—time for wounds to heal, trust to be built, individual relationships across different organizations and sectarian groups to be forged, and perhaps even a big outstanding political issue or two (like the future status of Kirkuk, which is supposed to be decided someday by referendum) to be resolved or at least partially defused…  Keeping ten to twenty thousand U.S. troops in Iraq could do all the above.”

Despite understandable fatigue about America’s involvement in Iraq more than eight years after the invasion, the United States cannot turn its back on our Iraqi allies.  Too much is at stake. 

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