Geopolitical Diary: Keeping U.S. Troops in Iraq
By: Stratfor.comJune 1, 2007
The White House on Wednesday compared the future U.S. troop presence in Iraq to that in South Korea. This is not so much an announcement of a plan to create a specific force structure or basing arrangement as it is a statement about the length and character of Washington's commitment to Baghdad. The real underlying significance of the announcement is simple: the United States is not leaving Iraq any time soon.

While perhaps at first indistinguishable from the Bush administration's well-rehearsed company line-that the United States is committed to Iraq-White House Press Secretary Tony Snow's choice of analogies comes amid the first public negotiations between Washington and Tehran on Iraq's stability. These negotiations themselves are the product of years of behind-the-scenes discussions aimed at finding a way to reconcile nearly incompatible national interests. Nevertheless, the very existence of public negotiations on the subject suggests substantial progress has been made from the impasse that existed earlier in the year.

The South Korea analogy is thus no small statement, no accident and no coincidence. This was not the standard "we stand by Iraq" press conference; the White House appears to have made an assertion that reflects a much deeper agreement with Tehran. Washington could well be positioning itself to garner domestic and Iraqi support for a U.S. military presence in Iraq that will continue for the foreseeable future (significantly, while reassuring Sunni allies in Iraq they will not be abandoned).

That presence, of course, will shift dramatically from the current arrangement. This is consistent with some changes already in the cards: a reduced U.S. troop presence and operational tempo, a shift from combat to advising and support, and a withdrawal from day-to-day security operations. The exact basing configuration and force structure are mere details, yet to be decided and-especially in the case of Iraqi Kurdistan-up for negotiation. But at the end of the day, a significant U.S. military presence will remain in Iraq.

That presence ultimately will mean the same thing for Iraq that it has meant for South Korea: an attack on Iraq is the same as an attack on the United States.

This position, whether official or unstated, has little to do with Iraq's internal sectarian strife. Rather, it creates a strategic tripwire in the region: the U.S. military physically interposes itself between Iran and Saudi Arabia, and gives Washington enough sway in Baghdad to provide a counterweight to Tehran's very real influence there. If the public talks continue to progress, Iraq could become the next nation to have its security (at least in terms of border integrity, if not internal stability) guaranteed by the United States-a commitment from Washington that has rarely proven to be short-lived.

But first, of course, there are the negotiations. For Iran, a large U.S. military presence in Iraq would be little better than a U.S.-backed Sunni puppet government in Baghdad (which is Tehran's worst fear, whether or not Washington thinks it is attainable). Thus, if the Iranians have truly agreed to this arrangement-and that is an exceedingly large "if"-serious U.S. concessions will be forthcoming.

High on Iran's list of priorities, for example, is a significant role for Tehran in training (and thus influencing and controlling) Iraqi security forces. With a continued but more isolated U.S. military presence in the country, Iran needs a counterbalance. The trick, of course, is that these very security forces have been Washington's own counterbalance to Tehran's power over the Shiite militias-and U.S. influence over the security apparatus will become increasingly important as the U.S. military draws back from day-to-day security operations.

In other words, Washington appears poised to set up a long-term presence in Iraq that is very nearly unacceptable for Tehran. If a deal is to proceed, Washington will have to reciprocate in kind with an equally unappetizing and nearly unacceptable concession, like sharing influence and perhaps even military participation in Iraq's security apparatus. It is a concession Washington could have a difficult time living with, even if the White House's representatives have agreed to it in principle.

The ability of the two sides to put this prospective compromise into practice is therefore far from certain. The situation is extremely fragile. Elections are looming in the United States and crucial power brokers in Iraq and Iran are falling ill. With both sides walking so close to the line, either could renege at the slightest provocation or the merest perceived shift in national interest.

Complicating matters further, any long-term U.S. military presence in Iraq will have to be worked out with the Iraqi government itself. Even after reaching this compromise with Washington, Tehran will need to convince its Shiite allies in Iraq to play ball-and, through them, it will need to compel a controlling share of all Iraqi Shia to go along.

The Sunnis, and especially the Kurds, can probably follow suit. However, the Shiite and Sunni landscapes in Iraq are both highly fractured and dominated by Islamist forces, which will oppose a long-term U.S. military presence on Iraqi soil.

Should all go incredibly well-should the various pieces of the puzzle not only fit into place but also hold their positions-there will be a long-term U.S. military presence in Iraq. But while this might serve Washington's interests in part by providing a bulwark against jihadists, it also will fuel the jihadist fire. It is worth remembering that the origins of al Qaeda trace back to a single issue: the long-term U.S. military presence in nearby Saudi Arabia.

Stratfor is a private intelligence company delivering in-depth analysis, assessments and forecasts on global geopolitical, economic, security and public policy issues. A variety of subscription-based access, free intelligence reports and confidential consulting are available for individuals and corporations.

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