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What Will U.S. Role in Iraq Be After 2011?

December 28, 2010 at 4:55 PM EDT
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As Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki says U.S. troops must leave by this time next year, what else is next for Iraq's new government? Margaret Warner speaks with Michael Gordon, military correspondent for The New York Times, and Joost Hiltermann of the International Crisis Group.

MARGARET WARNER: And for more on Prime Minister Maliki’s comments and where things stand in Iraq at year’s end, we turn to two people who have followed events there closely.

Joost Hiltermann is deputy program director for the Middle East and North Africa at the International Crisis Group. And Michael Gordon is a military correspondent for The New York Times. He’s working on his third book on the Iraq conflict.

Welcome to you both. Joost Hiltermann, beginning with you, so, how do you read this Maliki interview? Does this mean that U.S. forces will be out a year from now?

JOOST HILTERMANN, International Crisis Group: Well, what Prime Minister Maliki has made clear is that current agreements between Iraq and the United States need to be implemented.

By those agreements, American troops need to be out by the end of 2011. However, he has left himself an escape clause by saying unless this government, this Parliament decides to have a follow-on agreement. He’s left that open. But for a prime minister who would want the American troops to stay, he certainly is not giving any indication that he does.

MARGARET WARNER: How do you read it, Michael?

MICHAEL GORDON, chief military correspondent, The New York Times: Well, similarly, but I think — I think Iraq is clearly going to need some American military assistance after next year.

And it’s going to involve training, because they’re fielding M-1 tanks. They want F-16s. It’s going to involve control of their airspace. It’s going to involve intelligence-sharing. There are a whole host of needs that Iraq has from a security standpoint.

So, I suspect these tasks will be taken up in a subsequent agreement, a framework agreement of some kind. There won’t be tens of thousands of combat troops in Iraq in the future, but I would expect there would — more likely than not, there will be some sort of military presence.

MARGARET WARNER: So are you both saying you think that this was kind of posturing for political effect? Or was this driven by the fact that now he’s got Sadr in his coalition, and he really has to sound hard-nosed about getting the Americans out?

JOOST HILTERMANN: Yes, I think Maliki has been fairly consistent in saying that current agreements have to be implemented, and then we will see what happens later.

But there’s no doubt that Maliki’s government came about thanks to or due to Iranian pressure, which brought the Sadrists into his government. Without that, he could not have formed a government. And so that means he is somewhat beholden to them. It means at least that, if he wants to get an agreement through Parliament, they could block it.

And I think this is a particularly sensitive agreement that they would want to block. And so I think he’s laying the groundwork for the argument that maybe Iraq will not need U.S. troops on the ground beyond 2011.

MARGARET WARNER: Did I — did I read today that he — he said that, if anything such as the follow-on agreement happened — and I don’t know that he used that phrase — that it would have to be approved by the Parliament?

MICHAEL GORDON: Well, there’s already — there are really two agreements. There’s the so-called SOFA, which was signed by President Bush after all…


MICHAEL GORDON: … which requires that all American troops leave at the end of next year.

And then there’s a sort of framework agreement which is supposed to spell out ways in which we can cooperate with Iraq. What Maliki said in that same interview is this framework agreement will involve some kind of security cooperation, and which could maybe, he implied, involve training.

MARGARET WARNER: So, how — and, Michael, I will start with you, because you really follow the military here particularly closely. How equipped are these Iraqi security forces to protect the country?


MARGARET WARNER: What do they still need the U.S. to do? What can’t they do for themselves?

MICHAEL GORDON: If you left this issue up to the security officials in Iraq and the security officials in the United States, there would be an ongoing military support relationship, which would involve training, which would involve intelligence sharing, which would involve — well, we’re going to be selling them military equipment, which might even involve some select deployments of special operation forces to go against terrorist threats.

And, you know, the previous minister of defense in Iraq talked about requiring American military help through, I think, 2016 and beyond.

MARGARET WARNER: And he said that just this fall.

MICHAEL GORDON: Because what Iraq can do now is contend with militias. What it can’t do is provide for its external defense. It has no air force. And it wants to have an air force. It wants to have an air force with American aircraft.

So, when you put that into the equation, I think it suggests that — well, I think Iraq will want to have a credible military. It’s going to almost certainly turn to the United States.

MARGARET WARNER: So, how with that jibe with the political pressures on Maliki at home? Because, I mean, all of us who have been to Iraq know that Iraqis — at least many Iraqis are now taking pride in the fact that their own military is at least visibly the ones in charge.

JOOST HILTERMANN: Well, you know, we have an agreement in place now that runs out at the end of 2011. There can be a follow-on agreement. If Maliki decides not to go that way, then he will have to work out some kind of military partnership with the United States that doesn’t involve a number of ground troops.

Then he made need to use civilian contractors or work through the embassy, the Office for Security Cooperation. But he’s not going to have American troops on the ground then. And that means he will have to postpone certain issues, like his logistic support, while, for other issues, like satellite — sorry, intelligence support, he will have to rely on the American system without having troops on the ground.


JOOST HILTERMANN: That is what they will have to work out.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, meanwhile, we have this new government — or he has this new government finally. How stable is it? How equipped is it to deal with the challenges that still haven’t been solved there?

JOOST HILTERMANN: Well, that’s two different issues. I think it is fairly stable because it is broadly inclusive. This is the great advantage of this government.

But, because it is so inclusive and everybody is at the table, it’s going to be very difficult to reach decisions, especially on major issues. And so this government was necessary in this form in order to prevent a recurrence of civil war. At the same time, it’s not going to be the best governing government.

And that is going to have consequences as well. So, I think what we’re going to see is an Iraq that is going to muddle through the current period. But I don’t expect any major violence, no serious internal threats, no serious external threats either.

So, in that sense, the relationship with the United States is less critical in terms of American ground troops than it has been.

MARGARET WARNER: A muddle-through scenario, is that what you see, Michael?

MICHAEL GORDON: I agree with that. I think that it’s a unity government. Everybody is in the tent. But the big problem is, can it govern?

And I do see another danger, though. I mean, the Iraqi public is broadly dissatisfied with their government. They’re not delivering services.


MICHAEL GORDON: They’re not doing what governments are supposed to do. And they’re not more likely to do that because they brought in such a desperate group of — of — well, of politicians, many of whom profoundly dislike each other.

MARGARET WARNER: Well, and each one sort of gets a ministry, whether they’re competent at it or not, right? I mean, that’s one of the problems?

MICHAEL GORDON: And I think we have to really pay attention to who gets what ministry, because, in the past, the Sadrs were given the health ministry, the transportation ministry, and they used them as platforms to carry out political and really kind of militia activities.

So, we can’t just look at the prime minister and the top slots, who will be the next minister of defense, minister of interior. We also have to look at who gets what particular ministry and who these individuals are.

MARGARET WARNER: But quick final prediction. Do you both predict that, by this time next year, things will seem stable enough and peaceful enough that most, if not all, U.S. forces will be able to leave?

JOOST HILTERMANN: My sense is yes. I think now I feel — reinforce them. I believe that things are stabilizing. Politics will be unhappy, but things will move in the right direction.


MICHAEL GORDON: If I had to predict, I would say this SOFA will be implemented. The American combat troops will leave. There will be another agreement with a different name that sounds like it’s a support agreement that we might have with a country like Egypt or some other Arab nation.

But it will be elastic. And there will be all sorts of ways to continue to help the Iraqis: training exercises, contractors, Office of Defense Cooperation. There will be a mechanism to keep some number of American military advisers in Iraq.

MARGARET WARNER: All right. Michael Gordon and Joost Hiltermann, thank you both.