Almost two weeks ago, Robert Gates told troops in Iraq that the Obama administration would extend the American military commitment in the country if requested to do so by the Nouri al-Maliki government. That represented a significant reversal for Barack Obama, who campaigned on the promise to end the American military presence in Iraq. Today, the chair of the Joint Chiefs more or less confirmed the offer by telling the Iraqis that time is short if they want to take us up on it:
Iraq has not requested an extension of an end-2011 deadline for the United States to withdraw its troops, the top U.S. military officer said on Friday, following talks with Iraq’s prime minister.
Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the U.S. military’s Joint Chiefs of Staff, said on a visit to Baghdad that Iraq would need to begin talks very soon if it wanted to alter that plan in order to avoid “irrevocable logistics and operational decisions we must make in the coming weeks.”
Actually, that deadline is approaching quickly. It will take months to ship back the hardware assigned to the units in Iraq, and even the eight months left this year before the time on the SOFA expires might be cutting it a bit short. Any decision to ask for an extended stay would have to be made now, rather than mid-summer.
Unfortunately, the Iraqi government isn’t known for its timely consideration of pressing matters. They nearly hold the record for taking the longest period of time after an election to form a parliamentary government, a delay that came close to destroying the basis for the nascent democracy. Plus, Nouri al-Maliki might want to continue a military alliance with the US — he’s certainly hinted at it — but it’s almost impossible domestically. Moqtada al-Sadr has threatened to go to open war if the US doesn’t leave on time, and his political party forms an important part of Maliki’s coalition. Even if he was willing to defy Sadr, it’s beyond unlikely that Obama would keep troops in Iraq if it means once more conducting combat operations in the country, as Sadr has threatened to fight directly against American troops.
That’s too bad, because the Obama administration actually has the right idea in attempting to keep us in Iraq. Their security forces on the ground have improved considerably over the past few years, but the US conducts a good part of their logistical support — and Iraq still doesn’t have a viable air force to reliably protect its skies. If Maliki doesn’t have the political courage (or support, to be fair) to extend our military alliance, we’ll have no choice but to exit, and that determination will come very, very soon.