Over at the newly invigorated FP blogging central, Tom Ricks predicts there will be at least 35,000 U.S. troops in Iraq in 2015, “as Obama’s likely second term is winding down”:
Obama’s first year in Iraq is going to be tougher than Bush’s last year. Three reasons for that: First, three rounds of elections are scheduled in 2009, and those tend to be violent in Iraq. Second, the easy U.S. troop withdrawals have been made, and the pullouts at the end of this year will be riskier. Finally, none of the basic existential problems facing Iraq have been answered-the power relationships between groups, leadership of the Shiites, the sharing of oil revenue, the status of the disputed city of Kirkuk, to name just the most pressing ones. Compounding the problem will be the incorrect perception of many Americans that the Iraq was all but over when Obama took office.
Ricks also pours a bucketful of vomit-smelling ice water on Dick Cheney, Michael Yon, Bing West and others prematurely celebrating victory:
[…] Marinate a minute on Petraeus’s letter to his troops last month: ‘The year ahead will contain significant challenges, among them: provincial district and national elections; resilient enemies still carrying out deadly attacks; lingering ethno-sectarian mistrust and competition; malign external influences; and a national referendum on the US-Iraq Strategic Agreement.’
To those who think this thing is almost over: What part of ‘lingering ethno-sectarian mistrust’ don’t you understand?
In World Policy Journal, John Nagl and Brian Burton echo Ricks’s sentiments:
American forces have effectively served as shock absorbers in these ethnosectarian conflicts, but despite improved security, the Iraqi national government and local authorities have yet to make significant strides toward overcoming major political differences between the various groups and establishing a sustainable order.
While Nagl and Burton contend Iraq is “immeasurably better off than it was in 2006”, they point out that “it is still not a particularly happy place.” As for SOFA, it’s a necessary evil:
The Iraqi domestic political climate produced the 2011 deadline, but given the still-limited capabilities of the Iraqi security forces, it is highly likely that the government will request a continued U.S. advisory presence beyond that date. Whatever the outcome, it is clear that America’s freedom of action in Iraq is on the wane and its ability to make Iraq conform to desired outcomes is gone. Both are a mixed blessing.
After all, the objective of American policy is to build a free and independent Iraqi state. However, the fact that Iraqis are pushing to restrict the American role in their affairs while they have yet to resolve crucial political disagreements over elections, territorial control, and oil revenues makes Washington’s near-term decisions in Iraq of critical importance.
(Via Abu Muqawama.)