When the US and Iraq signed a status-of-forces agreement last year, many wondered whether we would actually stick around until the end of 2011 as the SOFA established. After all, Barack Obama had campaigned on a 16-month withdrawal of American forces from Iraq, and some Iraqi politicians insisted on a full withdrawal as soon as possible. Eli Lake reports that money speaks louder than words in both nations, though, and the money says, “Stick around” (via Jim Geraghty):
As President Obama weighs options for withdrawing U.S. combat troops from Iraq, the country’s military is purchasing American helicopters, cargo planes and tanks equipment that typically requires a prolonged U.S. presence for maintenance and training.
Lt. Gen. Frank Helmick, who is in charge of training Iraq’s security services and military, told The Washington Times that some of the ordered equipment would not be delivered until 2012, even though a new status of forces agreement (SOFA) requires all U.S. troops to exit the country by 2011.
Gen. Helmick said the Iraqi military had already ordered 140 M1 Abrams tanks, up to 24 Bell Assault Reconnaissance helicopters and 6 C130-J transport airplanes. The tanks will not be delivered until 2011, and the helicopters and transport planes will not arrive until the end of 2012 or possibly in 2013.
“The government of Iraq does not have to purchase that kind of equipment from the United States; they have elected to do so,” Gen. Helmick said. “To me that could indicate that the Iraqis would like to have a long-term strategic relationship with the United States.”
It’s not just buying cars on a lot, either. Defense manufacturers have to have maintenance support agreements to keep these systems in working order, which will last for years past the 2011 SOFA deadline. The systems require intensive training, an ongoing task that American forces will provide. The purchase of these systems is a long-term investment, not just in the materiel, but also in the US. Iraq obviously foresees a long-term strategic partnership with the US that goes far beyond the SOFA timelines.
The Iraqi defense minister will tour the US this month, visiting Defense Secretary Robert Gates in Washington and defense contractors in other areas. He recently remarked on a tour of South Korea that he sees the Seoul-DC relationship as a model for the US-Iraqi partnership, and hopes to see the same rapid modernization as a result in Iraq. John McCain expressed the same vision during the presidential campaign, and Obama derided it as “100 years of war”.
The tune out of Washington appears to be changing, though. Now a Defense spokesperson says that Obama has always seen the need for a significant residual force to remain in Iraq, a position which Obama adopted as soon as Hillary Clinton exited the race. But the tune has changed in Iraq as well, thanks to the ascendance of Nouri al-Maliki and the collapse of political support for Moqtada al-Sadr and other theocrats. The provincial elections showed religious parties, which provided most of the demands for US withdrawal, enjoy much less support than before.
Secular politicians have gained the upper hand in Iraq, and they will take a much more pragmatic view of their national interests — especially considering their geographic position between Iran and Syria. They need a strong partner to rebuild their strength, and the US needs a strong partner to offset Tehran’s influence in the region. Those interests will coincide for much longer than three years. The Obama administration appears to be realizing this and acting on it, albeit very, very quietly.