Under an agreement between Iraq and the George W. Bush administration, virtually all U.S. troops are to be out of that country by the end of the year. But the Obama administration, and apparently the Iraqi government, favor maintaining a residual force. To which our response is: "Yes … but."
After this country's long slog through a bloody and unnecessary war, one that has cost 4,474 American lives, the idea of prolonging any U.S. presence is extremely unappealing. But if the military deems this absolutely essential, then so long as the force were kept small — 5,000 or so — it might be acceptable as a way of shoring up Iraqi security forces and continuing training operations.
A larger force, though, would violate the spirit as well as the letter of the so-called Status of Forces Agreement signed by Iraq and the Bush administration. Some in the military have suggested a residual force as large as 18,000 — almost half of the 44,500 troops now in the country. If such a large force is necessary to secure gains in Iraq — and there have been some — it's hard to see any end to U.S. military involvement.
Supporters of a larger force argue that it is vital to the achievement of virtually every American objective in Iraq. For example, the Washington Post cites containing Al Qaeda, tamping down sectarian conflict, intercepting weapons from Iran and maintaining peace between Iraqi Kurdistan and the rest of the country. These are weighty goals, but at some point Iraq must make good on the call by the Bush administration to "step up" and take charge of its own destiny. That point is the end of this year.
The United States assumed a responsibility for Iraq when it invaded the country in 2003 and then squandered time and resources with an inept occupation. But eight years later Iraq has an elected government, however precarious its hold on power, and the security situation has improved significantly (despite a recent increase in attacks). The situation in any case is no worse than the signers of the Status of Forces Agreement would have predicted. President Obama doesn't have to take the agreement with the Iraqis literally, but he should take it seriously. That means a small residual force.