Now that Iraq's national security adviser has joined the Prime Minister in calling for the US-Iraq status of forces agreement to include a timetable for the withdrawal of US troops, it's time to place these remarks in context.
Nouri al-Maliki is trying to win an election. He wants to outflank the Sadrists who have been resisting the US occupation for some time. There have been massive demonstrations among the Shiite community to drive the occupiers out. It's significant that the NSA, Mouwaffak al-Rubaie, made his comments in the Shiite holy city of Najaf, and after discussions with the Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, no less.
But the actual withdrawal proposal put forth by Maliki and the Iraqi government is far less than it seems.
The Iraqi proposal stipulates that, once Iraqi forces have resumed security responsibility in all 18 of Iraq's provinces, U.S.-led forces would then withdraw from all cities in the country.
After that, the country's security situation would be reviewed every six months, for three to five years, to decide when U.S.-led troops would pull out entirely, al-Adeeb said.
The proposal, as outlined by al-Adeeb, is phrased in a way that would allow Iraqi officials to tell the Iraqi public that it includes a specific timetable and dates for a U.S. withdrawal.
However, it also would provide the United States some flexibility on timing because the dates of the provincial handovers are not set.
That's the key. This is a positioning document for al-Maliki, who wants to consolidate control in provincial elections. He's trying to prove that his rule has been successful and that he is not a puppet to the Americans. The other day he said that terrorism has been defeated in Iraq - it was his "Mission Accomplished" statement - as proof that he has been able to increase security all by himself.
The practical effect of the agreement described above is negligible. We've only handed over security responsibility in 9 of the 18 provinces to date. There's enough flexibility in this statement to hold off withdrawing all combat troops for potentially up to a decade. And 10 years is a long time and lots of things can change. This is an election-year "peace is at hand" statement that Maliki can wave around to the Iraqi public.
I wouldn't be surprised if Bush jumped at it, actually. It's certainly a good deal for him - he gets to pretend to leave while locking in for a long-term arrangement. He helps Maliki consolidate power and break the back of the Sadrist movement. It perpetuates the myth that we aren't seeking permanent bases - there's nothing in the withdrawal document about after-action forces - and that Iraq has some form of soveriegnty.
So let's not kid ourselves - even with such an agreement in place it will be very important who is in the White House implementing the policy, which could result in a gradual withdrawal or no discernible change for decades. If Sen. Obama wanted to clear up confusion about his Iraq policy that the brain-dead media seeks to muddy, he could come out strongly endorsing this concept of a phased withdrawal and the right of the Iraqis to self-govern. And he could specifically explain that this document wouldn't necessarily do that, and that it would be up to the policymakers to determine the next course.