Let’s be clear about what it is — when it comes to “withdrawal” from Iraq — that the President will veto this Wednesday. Section 1904(b) of the supplemental appropriations bill for the Pentagon, H.R. 1591, passed by the House and Senate, mandates that the Secretary of Defense “commence the redeployment of the Armed Forces from Iraq not later than October 1, 2007, with a goal of completing such redeployment within 180 days.” If you’ve been listening to network TV news shows or reading your local newspaper with less than an eagle eye, you might well be under the impression that — just as the phrasing above seems to indicate — a Democratic-controlled Congress has just passed a bill that mandates a full-scale American withdrawal from Iraq. (Reporters and commentators regularly speak of the Democrats’ insistence that “American troops be withdrawn from Iraq.”) But that’s only until you start reading the exceptions embedded in the bill.
Here are the main ones. According to H.R. 1591, the Secretary of Defense is allowed to keep U.S. forces in Iraq for the following purposes:
1. “Protecting American diplomatic facilities and American citizens, including members of the United States Armed Forces”: This doesn’t sound like much, but don’t be fooled. As a start, of course, there would have to be forces guarding the new American embassy in Baghdad (known to Iraqis as “George W’s Palace”). When completed, it will be the largest embassy in the known universe with untold thousands of employees; then there would need to be forces to protect the heavily fortified citadel of the Green Zone (aka “the International Zone”) which protects the embassy and other key U.S. facilities. Add to these troops to guard the network of gigantic, multibillion dollar U.S. bases in Iraq like Balad Air Base (with air traffic volume that rivals Chicago’s O’Hare) and whatever smaller outposts might be maintained. We’re talking about a sizable force here.
2. “Training and equipping members of the Iraqi Security Forces”: By later this year, U.S. advisors and trainers for the Iraqi military, part of a program the Pentagon is now ramping up, should reach the 10,000-20,000 range (many of whom — see above — would undoubtedly need “guarding”).
3. “Engaging in targeted special actions limited in duration and scope to killing or capturing members of al-Qaeda and other terrorist organizations with global reach”: This is a loophole of loopholes that could add up to almost anything as, in a pinch, all sorts of Sunni oppositional forces could be labeled “al-Qaeda.”
An Institute for Policy Studies analysis suggests that the “protection forces” and advisors alone could add up to 40,000-60,000 troops. None of this, of course, includes U.S. Navy or Air Force units stationed outside Iraq but engaged in actions in, or support for actions in, that country.
Another way of thinking about the Democratic withdrawal proposals (to be vetoed this week by the President) is that they represent a program to remove only U.S. “combat brigades,” adding up to perhaps half of all U.S. forces, with a giant al-Qaeda loophole for their return. None of this would deal with the heavily armed and fortified U.S. permanent bases in Iraq or the air war that would almost certainly escalate if only part of the American expeditionary forces were withdrawn (and the rest potentially left more vulnerable).