Daniel R. DePetris: The Political Docket

General Odierno: U.S. Troop Reduction Depends on Success of Iraqi Elections

Posted in Iraq by Dan on January 14, 2010

Can the U.S. troop drawdown hold up?

In a world full of violence and political turbulence, there is at least one piece of good news circulating around Washington…the timeline for a U.S. drawdown in Iraq remains on schedule.  According to General Raymond Odierno- the top American General in Iraq- the main contingent of U.S. troops will likely leave the Iraqi theatre by the end of 2011.

Understandably, General Odierno would not declassify any information concerning the specific logistics of the withdrawal.  But in an interview with the Associated Press a few weeks ago, he disclosed something that most Americans can take to heart; the U.S. Military plans to withdraw 12,500 troops per month after the Iraqi elections are completed in March.  By this estimate, the United States can expect a substantial troop reduction from Iraq in the first few months of this year.

To the troops and their families across the country, this is fantastic news.  Mothers, fathers, wives, husbands, sons, and daughters have waited for seven years to reunite with their loved ones.  In fact, the U.S. deployment from Iraq is a great morale booster for the entire country.  Odierno’s assurances could not come at a better time for the United States, especially given the President’s decision to escalate the war in Afghanistan.  Physically, Iraqis will officially retake their destiny and control the internal and external affairs of their nation.  Psychologically, the Iraqi chapter in the American book-of-war can finally be closed.

On a personal note, I am rather excited that Iraqis are taking control of their own country.  Who would have thought three years ago- when Iraq was engulfed in a civil war between Shias and Sunnis- that Baghdad would be rebuilt and the security situation would be improved as drastically as it was.  I am even more excited that our troops are returning home on schedule.

But with all of this said, there are some caveats.  I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but as General Odierno said, all of these plans depend on a successful Iraqi election in March.  If the election goes sour, or if Iraqi legislators are unwilling to abide by the results, the entire U.S. drawdown could be in jeopardy.

Granted, Iraq has already experienced an election when sectarian violence was starting to emerge.  This election took place in 2005, when Iraqis voted for an official parliament.  And to a certain degree, the 2005 elections were somewhat successful.  Millions of Iraqi citizens took to the polls in spite of threats and intimidation, and Iraqis were able to create their own central government for the first time.  Taking precedent into account, common sense dictates that the March election will be even more successful, given the tremendous security achievements made in the past two years.

Yet this common sense would be shortsighted.  The 2005 election, while significant, was largely executed and defended by U.S. troops on the ground.  The Iraqi Security Forces- still untrained and underpaid at that time- had yet to experience the full pressure of taking the lead against Sunni insurgents and Shia militias.  What is more, millions of Sunnis decided to boycott the election in protest, making a Shia-led government a given phenomenon.

The 2005 election failed to test Iraq to the fullest extent.  March 2010 will be completely different.  This time, the Iraqi Army and the Iraqi Police will be forced to take the lead in security operations, with American troops residing in their bases on city outskirts.  This time, Iraqi politicians will have to convince Sunnis to take part.  With many Sunnis unable to find work- and with the Sunni community feeling marginalized by the Iraqi Government- this will not be an easy task.  Add Baath’ Party remnants and recent terrorist attacks to the list and the election could easily spiral into an unending wave of violence.

So, before we start jumping up and down and celebrating an Iraqi victory, let’s see if the Iraqis have the ability to conduct a somewhat peaceful election on their own.  Because in a way, their success can make or break the U.S. withdrawal strategy.

-Daniel R. DePetris

http://www.twitter.com/mideastblogger

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