U.S. troops still needed in Iraq to con­tain Iran

The Washington Times Weekly - - Commentary -

Amer­i­can troops are sched­uled to with­draw from Iraq by the end of 2011, but don’t bet that all of them will leave. There are sev­eral rea­sons to main­tain a resid­ual, com­bat-ca­pa­ble U.S. mil­i­tary pres­ence in Iraq, the most ob­vi­ous be­ing the proxy war on Iraq waged by Iran’s tyran­ni­cal regime.

That proxy war has gone on since 2003, but within the last year, as U.S. forces have with­drawn, Ira­nian trou­ble­mak­ing has in­creased.

The Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion has no­ticed. Last week, U.S. Sec­re­tary of De­fense Leon Panetta told a group of Amer­i­can sol­diers in Iraq that Wash­ing­ton is “very con­cerned about Iran and the weapons they’re pro­vid­ing to ex­trem­ists in Iraq.”

Panetta could have added, with cer­tainty, that Iran pro­vides Iraqi gangs, ex­trem­ist mili­tias, and al-Qaida rem­nants with money and po­lit­i­cal sup­port. Ira­nian in­tel­li­gence ser­vices and spe­cial forces may also be pro­vid­ing some of these groups with op­er­a­tional plan­ning and tar­get­ing ad­vice.

Iran’s rad­i­cal Is­lamic regime knows an Iraqi democ­racy on its west­ern bor­der threat­ens its very ex­is­tence. Iran’s mul­lahs fear Iraq’s democ­racy be­cause it gives the Ira­nian op­po­si­tion Green Move­ment an au­then­tic Mid­dle East­ern model for demo­cratic po­lit­i­cal ac­tion.

Waging a proxy war on Iraq serves the mul­lahs’ do­mes­tic po­lit­i­cal goal of re­press­ing their own pop­u­la­tion.

Credit Panetta with be­ing an Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion of­fi­cial who will pub­licly raise the prospect of keep­ing resid­ual U.S. forces in Iraq. At the mo­ment, Wash­ing­ton and Bagh­dad are en­gaged in a com­plex diplo­matic tap dance. Both gov­ern­ments ac­knowl­edge the need to re­main al­lies. Wash­ing­ton wants the Iraqi gov­ern­ment to ex­tend an in­vi­ta­tion to keep U.S. mil­i­tary forces in Iraq, but the Iraqis are re­luc­tant. Though the nation’s two most prom­i­nent po­lit­i­cal lead­ers, Prime Min­is­ter Nouri al-Ma­liki and for­mer in­terim Prime Min­is­ter Iyad Allawi, con­tinue their feud, there are in­di­ca­tions both men think a U.S. mil­i­tary pres­ence will help de­ter Iran. Rad­i­cal Shia cleric Muq­tada al-Sadr com­pli­cates Iraqi do­mes­tic pol­i­tics. He wants the U.S. out right now. Sadr, how­ever, is a vi­o­lent bully who is lit­tle more than Iran’s mouth­piece.

The Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion’s mixed mes­sages have also added to the diplo­matic mud­dle. Can­di­date Barack Obama vowed to quit Iraq. He also promised Iran’s tyrants un­con­di­tional ne­go­ti­a­tions. Burned by Ira­nian bel­liger­ence and hypocrisy, Pres­i­dent Obama has slowly dis­cov­ered that bug­ging out of Iraq isn’t such a good idea.

Late last year, the U.S. gov- ern­ment ac­knowl­edged that the Iraqi Army and Air Force will not reach what the Pen­tagon calls Min­i­mum Es­sen­tial Ca­pa­bil­ity (MEC) by De­cem­ber 2011.

MEC is jar­gon for be­ing able to se­cure the coun­try from in­ter­nal at­tacks (by gangs and ter­ror­ists), as well as de­fend Iraqi airspace and ter­ri­tory from con­ven­tional at­tack.

Burned by Ira­nian bel­liger­ence and hypocrisy, Obama has slowly dis­cov­ered that bug­ging out of Iraq isn't such a good idea.

The Iraqi Army has im­proved. The April 2008 Charge of the Knights of­fen­sive demon­strated that the Army’s best units were able to plan and ex­e­cute a mul­ti­di­men­sional in­ter­nal se­cu­rity op­er­a­tion. The qual­ity of in­di­vid­ual units even within Iraq’s Quick In­ter­ven­tion Corps varies widely, how­ever.

The U.S. will con­tinue to pro­vide train­ing as­sis­tance, lo­gis­ti­cal sup­port and in­tel­li­gence sup­port to the Iraqi Army. Real- ists in Bagh­dad and Wash­ing­ton, how­ever, know that a re­in­forced U.S. divi­sion would pro­vide a re­li­able, read­ily avail­able backup in an emer­gency. The Iraqi Air Force ex­ists, barely. Af­ter some two years of in­de­ci­sion, the IAF is on the verge of buy­ing a squadron of U.S.-made F-16 jet fight­ers. It in­tends to add a sec­ond squadron (for a to­tal of 36 air­craft) as funds be­come avail­able.

The F-16 is the plane Iraq needs. Two F-16 squadrons, sup­ported by an in­te­grated sur­face-to-air mis­sile de­fense sys­tem, would go a long way to­ward se­cur­ing Iraqi airspace, if the pi­lots are well-trained and the planes are well-main­tained.

Build­ing those two squadrons and train­ing their per­son­nel takes time, how­ever. 2016 is the ear­li­est date the IAF could go it alone.

Who de­fends Iraqi airspace in the in­terim? Air de­fense ar­range­ments with Kuwait, Jor­dan and Tur­key are a pos­si­bil­ity, but here’s the re­al­is­tic an­swer: the U.S. Air Force.

Austin Bay is a na­tion­ally syn­di­cated colum­nist.

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