Yes, the U.S. is withdrawing from Iraq


President Barack Obama's announcement today of a complete withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq by the end of 2011 should be cause for real celebration.  This is the right decision, at the right time.  It may have been forced upon the administration by Iraqi political realities. But the end result will be a mutually agreed upon and orderly American withdrawal from Iraq on the timetable which both Bush and Obama promised but which few believed would ever really happen. This should be seen as a positive moment for America and for Iraq. Indeed, removing the distraction of the polarizing and largely irrelevant debate over the presence of U.S. troops could actually improve the chances of building a positive, enduring relationship with Iraq -- though that opportunity could all too easily be lost.   

Iraq still faces many difficult challenges and won't be fully secure or politically stable for a long time.  But the U.S. military presence is now largely irrelevant to those problems. Nor would the remaining troops have greatly troubled Iran.  Iraqi politics and security institutions have long since adapted to the reduced American role and its impending departure.  Disaster did not follow when U.S. troops stopped patrolling, or when 100,000 troops left over the course of a year. Instead, Iraqi Security Forces took over the lead role in internal security under the new conditions, and adapted effectively enough.  Even if an agreement had been reached to keep some U.S. troops after 2011, they would have been almost exclusively involved in training and support. The ongoing terrorist attacks and unresolved instability along the Arab-Kurdish border pose real challenges, but the U.S. troops which might conceivably have stayed behind in 2012 weren't going to be dealing with them.

Crucially, Iraqis will not be surprised by the American withdrawal. This is no rush to the exits. Thanks to Bush's 2008 SOFA deal and Obama's clear public declarations over the last few years, the withdrawal will not be a sudden, unexpected or disruptive removal of a vital support structure. Iraqi politics have already adapted to the declining American role, and factored it in. The result hasn't been pretty -- worrying centralization of power by Prime Minister Maliki, a fractious and ineffective Parliament, continuing institutional deficiencies, a nasty political discourse, and ongoing low level violence. But it looks resilient enough to avoid catastrophe, and above all it doesn't depend on (or want) constant American pushing and prodding and intervention to carry on. 

The reality, too often downplayed in the U.S.-centric debate, is that most Iraqis simply didn't want the U.S. troops to stay.  This matters in the intensely polarized Iraqi political arena.  The scars of invasion, occupation, and civil war run deep. There are plenty of Iraqi elites who privately hoped that the U.S. would stay, who recognized Iraq's external military weakness, warned of a resurgent civil war, or feared for their political future. But very few would make that case to Iraqis in public because they knew it would be political suicide. And that matters.  It should not be a surprise that negotiations over extending the U.S. presence collapsed over the question of immunity for U.S. troops -- essential to the Pentagon, but perhaps the single most politically incendiary issue for Iraqis. 

While there's of course a wide range of opinion, it's worth noting that Iraqi officials with whom I've spoken recently shrugged when asked about the likely effects of a full American withdrawal. They didn't expect a major impact on security, and some thought that removing the issue of extending the U.S. troop presence from the Iraqi political debate would have a healthy effect.  People whose political lives depend on it don't all seem to share the apocalyptic fears often heard in Washington -- and if they did, presumably they would have behaved differently during the negotiations. 

Even those who privately hoped the U.S. would stay opposed the idea of a small residual force, which they pointed out would keep the political issue alive without providing many real security gains. Trying to circumvent public opinion through a secret agreement or through a deal which didn't require Parliamentary approval would have been even worse, leaving the U.S. presence in a vulnerable condition of contested legitimacy which would have ensured that it remained a top political wedge issue.

The Obama administration did what it could to negotiate an agreement to keep a training and support mission in Iraq. But administration officials involved with the issue seem satisfied with the outcome, as they should.  As I wrote months ago, I wouldn't have been bothered much if Obama and the Iraqi government had ultimately agreed to keep a few thousand troops in an agreement ratified by the Iraqi Parliament.  It wouldn't have been necessary, and would have looked like he had broken his commitment to withdraw, but it wouldn't have remotely resembled an occupation under those terms.  But I am glad that it didn't work out that way. It's simply better that the troops all leave.  And it's far, far better that the Obama administration didn't accept either a fatally flawed deal or one which had not won Iraqi political consent -- which were the only other plausible outcomes. 

I do hope that Obama's invitation to Maliki to come to Washington in December to discuss the implementation of the Strategic Framework Agreement leads to real, mutually beneficial cooperation between the U.S. and Iraq.  The fact that most Iraqi elites recognize that they still need U.S. logistical support, especially for external defense needs, should give them a strong incentive to stay engaged with us even without a new SOFA. There are plenty of non-military ways that the U.S. could help Iraq, more important to building an enduring relationship than the military dimension, even if Congress still doesn't seem inclined to pay for them.  One way to get around the deal would be to rely even more on private contractors -- and, indeed, their continuing role is one of the main criticisms already aired on the left against the withdrawal announcement. But it wouldn't surprise me if the expected army of thousands of American security contractors and massive Embassy staff also soon comes into question.  

Those questions will all come up soon, though I suspect that the actual fallout on the ground and in the region will be limited. But for now, the announcement of the withdrawal of all U.S. troops should be welcomed as a major step forward and an opportunity to develop that new relationship.  Today feels good after so many long years of working towards the goal of a responsible U.S. withdrawal from Iraq. 

Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Marc Lynch

A Nobel Prize for the Yemeni People

Yemeni human rights activist Tawakkul Karman was announced last night as one of the winners of the Nobel Peace Prize.  For once, the Nobel committee really got it right.  Karman has been a tireless, creative and effective advocate for human rights, media freedoms, and democracy in Yemen for years.  And Yemen's struggle for change has been largely forgotten by the world in spite of its almost unbelievable resilience in the face of dim prospects for success.  She represents the very best of the new Arab public.  Now let us hope that the award sparks the international community to refocus on Yemen's forgotten revolution and push hard for the political transition which it so desperately needs and deserves.

My money for the Nobel Peace Prize had been on Egypt's Wael Ghoneim, who had been the administrator of the "We Are All Khaled Said" Facebook page which had helped to crystallize widespread rage over police abuse and unaccountable state bureaucracy.  Ghoneim would have been a good choice.  He has perhaps fallen out of favor with the current flavors of Egyptian revolutionaries. But the Khaled Said page helped to pioneer creative forms of protest, brought fundamental issues of political discontent to a much wider circle of ordinary Egyptians, and served as a vital public forum for debate, argument, and online community building.   He would have been the best choice to honor the Egyptian revolution. 

If it hadn't been Ghoneim, I had been hoping for one of three alternatives.  First, Sami Ben Gharbia (@ifikra) as a leading figure in both the online Tunisian community which helped to spark the first great Arab uprising and the phenomenal Global Voices Online collective which has for a decade been bridging international blogospheres.   Second, someone from Bahrain -- a variety of candidates come to mind -- to draw attention to one of the truly tragic and horrific episodes in the Arab uprising which the world has chosen to ignore.  And the third was Tawakkul Karman.

Karman is an exceptional woman, who has been part of one of the most amazing and impressive of all the Arab uprisings.  While some in Yemen resent her international celebrity, she is not a creation of the international media. She has been campaigning fearlessly for human rights, women's rights and media freedoms for many years, at great personal risk and against long odds. She has been involved with youth protests and weekly demonstrations for years, just like so many of the activist youth around the Arab world who finally broke through in 2011. And her work in Yemen demonstrates how deeply intertwined the different national struggles across the Arab world have been:  as she said a few days after Mubarak's fall,  "Look at Egypt.  We will win."  So does the overjoyed response to her award across Arab internet communities, who clearly recognize her victory as their own.  Her response to the award says it all:

"This is a message that the era of Arab dictatorships is over. This is a message to this regime and all the despotic regimes that no voice can drown out the voice of freedom and dignity. This is a victory for the Arab spring in Tunis, Egypt, Libya, Syria and Yemen. Our peaceful revolution will continue until we topple Saleh and establish a civilian state."


Karman has also been involved for years with Islah, the Yemeni opposition party which includes the Muslim Brotherhood.  This should be taken as an important reminder of how religious and secular activists have joined together in this year's great Arab uprising. Her Islamist background has not prevented her from being an organic part of a democratic uprising, and -- as we have seen with so many young Muslim Brotherhood activists in Egypt and around the region -- her participation in a widely based struggle against an autocratic regime has changed her own ideas.  Her decision a few years ago to remove her niqab (full face covering) will likely be widely cited in coming days as an example of her evolution, and will likely be misunderstood -- she was certainly not abandoning or repudiating Islam, but rather moving within an ongoing and ever changing Yemeni and Arab Muslim society.  Her Nobel Peace Prize could become a landmark in the vital effort to prevent a "clash of civilizations" -- proving to politically engaged young Islamists that they can be accepted as full equals in Western international society and showing many in the West that such Islamists can be passionate advocates of shared values such as democracy and human rights. 

Tawakkul Karman's Nobel Prize creates an opportunity for the world to refocus on the urgent need to push for a meaningful political transition in Yemen.  As I wrote a few weeks ago, the failure to find a way to transfer power and move towards a democratic Yemen has brought the country to the brink of real civil war and collapse.  The Yemeni protest movement has maintained an almost unbelievable level of mobilization and enthusiasm, but has been unable to break through the stalemated political process.  They are increasingly trapped between armed camps. Solutions which might have been possible months ago, if the internaitonal community had pushed forcefully, now seem less plausible.  Some form of immunity for Saleh and his men after they leave power had been a key part of the GCC's transition proposal, but this will be much harder for Yemenis to accept after the recent massacres (and, frankly, there should not be impunity for such atrocities). 

Since returning to Yemen, Saleh has made it clear that he has no intention of leaving, and all signs are that he is willing to drive Yemen over the cliff into hell to save himself.  Nothing has seemed to be able to divert him from that tragic path.  It doesn't seem likely, but let us hope that the Nobel Peace Prize for Tawakkul Karman can galvanize international attention and push the world to finally act forcefully to bring about the desperately needed political transition.  Could Yemen be the place where a Nobel Peace Prize actually helps bring about peace?