Mar 2nd 2009

Goodbye Baghdad, Hello Kabul: The US Withdrawal

by Binoy Kampmark

Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, University of Cambridge and history lecturer at the University of Queensland

There was no gasp, merely a lingering sigh that came with the announcement that the vast bulk of US combat forces would be leaving Iraq by August 31, 2010, with the final departures taking place at the end of December 2011. Before a gathering of Marines at Camp Lejuene in North Carolina, President Barack Obama promised the withdrawal in a spirit of renewed realism in American geopolitics. No longer should Washington use its power to pursue inchoate goals with unclear costs, both politically and militarily.

With this announcement has gone the fantasy of a model democratic state in the Middle East, that light on the hill the neoconservative warriors attempted to fire with such Manichean vengeance. Obama suggested that Americans would have to settle for less from such mischief - the back door had been opened for a more realistic appraisal of limits in US foreign policy. 'We cannot rid Iraq of all who oppose America or sympathise with our adversaries. We cannot police Iraq's streets until they are completely safe, nor stay until Iraq's union is perfected. We cannot sustain a commitment that has put a strain on our military, and will cost the American people nearly a trillion dollars.'

Many Americans will be relieved, bar those sanguinary hawks who continue to live in a parallel world of pseudo-imperial kitsch, self-enrichment and ritual sacrifice for the American flag. Iraqis, suspicious of US ambition to convert their state less into a beacon of freedom than an oil-rich neo-colonial outpost of American might, will be even more so. 'The United States pursues no claim on your territory or your resources.'

Well said, but everything lies in the means of execution. Senator John McCain, who desired the Iraqi millstone to be placed around the neck of American power for a seemingly interminable period, expressed cautious support for the plan, calling it 'significantly different than the plan Obama had during the campaign.' Hardly: Obama had promised the withdrawal within 16 months of taking office. This merely extends the policy by three.

The Iraqis, and some even on Obama's side of politics (House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid), might have residual fears: some 35,000 to 50,000 US troops will remain on the ground, ostensibly on an anti-terrorist footing, a matter seen as pointless to many. The whole notion of a 'non-combat' role is fairly redundant. They remain targets, involved as they are with a fragile Iraqi administration. Those less concerned with the political labelling of a US troop presence (as an occupation or otherwise), fear an implosion of the nation. Given what the occupation has done to the country in the first place, things could not get much worse.

Besides, troops withdrawn from the Iraqi operation will simply be fodder for that death trap of empires, Afghanistan. The Obama administration is feeding 17,000 troops into the Afghan graveyard, suggesting that the coalition is fast losing control over the unruly provinces of the country. That remains the continuing, and mounting headache the administration will have to contend with.

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