Archive for the ‘SOFA’ Category

Iraq: A Lose-Lose with SOFA?

Before signing off for Christmas, I’d like to draw your attention (via Abu Aardvark) to this interesting new briefing from USIP.

The paper, written by Daniel P. Serwer and Sam Parker and titled Iraq in the Obama Administration, offers several worthwile recommendations to the inbound president on how to navigate the morass of Iraq. One in particular struck me as shockingly pertinent:

2) The June withdrawal from cities: Areas in Baghdad, Diyala and Mosul will see significant strains and may witness ethnic, sectarian or other violence.

  • Recommendation 4: U.S. forces, which should expect to live with a measure of violence, need to be ready to intervene quickly if violence reaches unacceptably extreme levels. This must be weighed against the political consequences (in both Iraq and the U.S.) of doing so, which could be damaging.

I’ve said this before, and I’ll say it again: I don’t see how this is going to work. My guess is the July referendum will end up scrapping SOFA. And even if it doesn’t, once U.S. forces vacate their COPs and JSSs, they have little chance of effectively intervening in case the bloodshed worsens — unless, as USIP’s seers seem to suggest, the U.S. unilaterally scuttles SOFA, which would mean — don’t you just love the irony — usurping the civilian government.

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SOFA becomes reality, and here’s Reidar Visser’s take on the “Withdrawal Treaty”:

[…} George W. Bush never managed to use leverage in the negotiations with the Iraqi government over bilateral relations. Instead, during the course of one year, his administration essentially performed an unconditional reversal of its Iraq policy, silently moving from its traditional resistance against timetables for withdrawal to accepting a framework that means full withdrawal within 3 years, with no opening even for the ‘residual forces’ that also pragmatists among the Democrats have enthusiastically defended. One year ago, Washington had leverage over Maliki because he was still weak: he needed American support so that he could achieve better control of the Iraqi security forces and thereby enhanced control over internal challengers to his rule. In 2008, without asking for any favours in return, the Bush administration gave him this in the shape of a continuation of ‘the surge’. Moreover, by performing a ‘surge’ with no built-in requirements for political reform, Washington consistently enhanced Maliki’s leverage in the very negotiations that were simultaneously going on between the two sides.

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Want a hyper-cynical take on SOFA? Here’s Andrew Sullivan’s:

[The hard right] will try to argue that Obama’s choice to withdraw has led to a victory for al Qaeda and that the Democrats have stabbed American troops in the back. (You can almost write Palin’s primary campaign message three years ahead of time.) But now that the Iraqis themselves have insisted on total US withdrawal by 2011 regardless, the neocons will not be able to play that card – or at leat play it with any credibility.

The looming civil war in Iraq will then be the Iraqis’ responsibility and Bush’s ultimate legacy in Iraq. Obama can avoid some of the blowback. And the genius of appointing Clinton as secretary-of-state is that she will have to absorb the blows of failure. Think of a possible Obama State Department offer to Clinton this way:

‘You voted for this bloody war. Now you can end it.’

And he will focus on the economy. Genius.

I’ve been trying to argue the opposite — that regardless of what one thinks of the war, one has to accept the fact that the U.S. needs to clean up the mess it made. I don’t see how this can be accomplished if, as Mike Mullen suggests, withdrawing all of the 150,000 troops now in country would take “two to three years”, which means the pullout would have to commence, well, right now.

Asked about a requirement that U.S. troops move out of Iraqi cities by mid-2009, Mullen said the gradual shift from urban areas has been the practice as Iraqi forces take responsibility for security in different provinces. But he said the Iraqi capital of Baghdad and northern city of Mosul were likely to pose special challenges.

‘Turning the security of Baghdad over in that requirement will be a big challenge,’ he said. ‘The other that is clearly not secure up north is Mosul. And we continue to be in a pretty tough fight up in Mosul,’ he said.

I hate vanity-quoting, but this is what I tried to say already in August:

[…] Pulling U.S. forces out of the cities as soon as June 2009 raises serious questions. It would presumably mean not only vacating the Green Zone but iraqisizing the COPs in contested cities like Mosul, and Baghdad, where sectarian fault lines have been reinforced with American-built walls. It’s a terrible idea, probably based on the hubristic assumption that the ebbing of one militant group’s fortunes means the country is on a straight road to lasting peace.

I can’t see how the Iraqi Army can possibly cope once the Americans are gone from the streets. They’re not ready, as they themselves readily admit, and a mere 12 months won’t make much of a difference — particularly as their foes, from AQI to militias and common criminals, will lay low, comfortable in the knowledge that they don’t have much longer to wait.

Spencer Ackerman already laments the death of SOFA in the hands of the brutish admiral:

Congratulations, Mike Mullen! You may have just guaranteed the rejection of the Status of Forces Agreement by the Iraqi parliament!

Remember that the document says the U.S. has to be out of Iraq — irrespective of conditions — by Dec. 31, 2011 and out of Iraqi cities and towns by mid-2009. It faces a dicey parliamentary vote in large part because the Iraqi people, and by extension the Iraqi parliament, fear that the U.S. won’t honor that commitment. That’s the main reason why Moqtada al-Sadr opposes the deal.

Now hold it right there, habibi. Even without privileged access to Muqtada’s thought processes I can pretty much vouch for the fact that he does not oppose the agreement out of fear for the U.S. not honouring it. He opposes it because he wants the Americans out immediately so that he can take on his Shia rivals without those pesky MRAPs on every corner. With SOFA signed and sealed “irrespective of conditions”, there is no incentive for Maliki to speed up political reconciliation, which makes the ultimate Shia vs. Shia slugfest all but inevitable.

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If The Wall Street Journal has it right (and it may not), U.S. combat troops will leave Iraq in 2011. The way I see it, there are exactly two ways of looking at this: 1) 2011 is too late; or 2) it’s too early. But before we start a Missing Links style tit-for-that, let’s put things in perspective:

  • In 2011, our newborn will be three years old.
  • He will walk and talk.
  • He will ride a bike — if he takes after his big brother.
  • He may not know all of the alphabet, but he knows Iraq is a country, and he will want to know why daddy is again going there.

It may well be that an Iraqi child born this summer will grow up in an atmosphere of peace and prosperity. But it’s equally possible he might see his family killed and end up as a refugee in some scary foreign country. There’s just no way of knowing. Three years is a long time in a kid’s life — and in Iraq.

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Last month, in one of my fits of sarcasm, I commented on the ongoing Iraqi-U.S. talks on a Status of Forces Agreement:

I bet the Bush administration never thought this would happen — that a newly assertive Iraqi government would want to make a security deal not with America but (wait for it) Iran, and — gasp — that they might actually ask the U.S. to get the hell out.

Today it’s official: the Iraqis want a deadline. “We can’t have a memorandum of understanding with foreign forces unless it has dates and clear horizons determining the departure of foreign forces. We’re unambiguously talking about their departure,” Maliki’s National Security Advisor Mowaffaq al-Rubaie said in Najaf after meeting the top Shia cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, who is known to oppose any wide-ranging security deal.

Meanwhile, the debate over SOFA and SFA seems to be picking up in Washington. Two Democractic legislators, Bill Delahunt and Rosa DeLauro, responding to a June 15 Washington Post editorial they call “badly misguided”, point out that come January 1, not only will the UN Security Council mandate for war expire, but so will the domestic authority:

The U.N. mandate provides the last legal thread of domestic U.S. authority for combat because ‘enforcing relevant U.N. resolutions’ was one of the two activities cited by the 2002 vote in Congress authorizing the use of force against Iraq (the other being to dispose of the threat posed by Saddam Hussein). If the U.N. mandate expires on Dec. 31, so does domestic authority for our troops to fight, along with their immunity from Iraqi prosecution.

Already in April, two Yale law professors, Bruce Ackerman and Oona Hathaway, argued in a Post op-ed piece, titled “The War’s Expiration Date”, that unless nothing is done, the war will become illegal on Jan. 1, 2009.

The most recent U.N. resolution expires on Dec. 31, and the administration has announced that it will not seek one for 2009. Instead, it is now negotiating a bilateral agreement with the Iraqi government to replace the U.N. mandate.

Whatever this agreement contains, it will not fill the legal vacuum. That’s because the administration is not planning to submit this new agreement to Congress for its explicit approval. Since the Constitution gives the power to ‘declare war’ to Congress, the president can’t ignore the conditions imposed on him in 2002 without returning for a new grant of authority. He cannot substitute the consent of the Iraqi government for the consent of the U.S. Congress.

What next? I guess toppling Maliki isn’t an option, and re-upping the UNSC resolution probably isn’t either. Bush and Maliki might go for a short-term deal, but with the stakes getting higher, even an interim agreement might not be palatable to the newly confident Iraqis without some sort of a “horizon”.

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Iraqi officials are demanding an investigation into a U.S. raid on the town of Janaja, in the southern Karbala Province, according to McClatchy. Janaja happens to be the birthplace of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, and because the province has been officially handed over to Iraqi security forces, the Iraqis are talking about a violation of terms.

The incident may be minor, but it underlines a few issues I’ve been wondering about.

First, does a rushed transfer of control create more problems than it solves? Obviously, when the U.S. wants to take someone down, it will not wait for Iraqi permission. Maliki, for his part, won’t take public embarrassments lightly, not after his (largely imagined) solo successes in Basra and Mosul. Hence the stage is set for a confrontation neither side will win.

Second, what does ‘transfer of control’ mean, exactly? If it means U.S. troops assuming overwatch, surely it falls to the ISF to conduct the kinetic stuff? And if so, why did they not do it in Janaja? (The obvious answer: They couldn’t, they wouldn’t, and they weren’t allowed to by the Americans.)

Third, what will happen in more contested provinces like Anbar? Whether one likes it or not, someone needs to fight this war, and by all accounts it won’t be the ISF. On the other hand, an agreement is an agreement, and surely the COIN maxim “strengthening the host government” means more than just parades?

And fourth, if the U.S. and the Iraqis have trouble reading the fine print of their agreements in a minor Shia town, how do they suppose SOFA would work?

UPDATE SUNDAY: What’d I tell you:

The incident puts an added strain on U.S.-Iraqi negotiations to draft a Status of Forces Agreement, a long-term security pact that will govern the conduct of U.S. forces in Iraq. Members of the Iraqi government and security forces said the raid only deepened their reluctance to sign any agreement that did not leave Iraqis with the biggest say on when and how combat operations are conducted.

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The Bush administration pushed for a status of forces agreement with Iraq already in November 2003, according to unclassified documents obtained by the National Security Archive.

The heavily redacted documents include a December 2003 cable by CPA head Jerry Bremer to the State Department and the NSC calling for “wide latitude to provide for the safety and security of the Iraqi people”. The cable outlines points on several issues, including “military/security operations”, “bearing of arms, uniforms, flags & markings”, and “privileges and immunities”. For example:

  • ‘U.S. must be authorized to detain, intern, and interrogate anti-coalition and security risk personnel’
  • ‘U.S. must be authorized to retain custody of current POWs/detainees/internees…’
  • ‘U.S. must be authorized to seize and retain intelligence-related documents’
  • ‘Coalition forces must have unlimited authority to conduct military operations they deem necessary and proper under the circumstances.’


  • ‘U.S. personnel must be accorded status equivalent to that accorded to administrative and technical (A&T) personnel (full criminal immunity and immunity from civil process for official acts)’
  • ‘Contractors and Iraqis employed by the coalition must be immune from legal process for acts performed in official capacity’
  • ‘U.S. personnel and contractor employees must not be surrendered to international tribunals or any other states or entities without approval of U.S. government.’

If this sounds strikingly similar to what we now know about the current negotiations, it’s because the U.S. demands have in essence remained the same for five years.

Forgive me for being cynical, but if the security environment has changed as much as both Maliki and the White House claim, why are they still talking about the same issues? It sounds an awful lot like permanent U.S. military presence was the plan all along…

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