Although the administration has informally suggested some numbers, indicating that leaving 10,000 U.S. troops behind — out of the 46,000 still there — might be reasonable, such estimates remain “guesswork,” a senior U.S. military official said.
“The Iraqis haven’t come to any consensus about what it is they might need” in terms of tasks they want the Americans to perform, said the official, one of several who discussed the sensitive issue on the condition of anonymity. Until they do, he said, the Americans are unable to calculate “how many troops that might require.”
Administration officials said that Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has been telling some of his own officials that President Obama wants to leave as many as 30,000 troops in Iraq, a figure the White House dismisses as wildly high.
“Any post-2011 troop presence is going to be significantly smaller than what we have there now,” an administration official said.
Some U.S. officials have come to the conclusion that the Iraqis may never reach agreement on the subject before the last troops are scheduled to leave by the end of the year.
“This is not an inevitability,” said a second administration official. “And it’s also not inevitable that we would agree to what they are asking. How this is all going to sort out, we just don’t know.”
In the meantime, the indecision complicates an already vexing problem for Obama.
Despite his pledge of complete withdrawal, the administration has made clear its willingness to continue tasks such as training, air defense, intelligence and reconnaissance, as well as joint counterterrorism missions with Iraqi forces at a time of Iranian inroads, increased violence and ongoing political instability. The 15 U.S. troops killed in Iraq last month marked the highest level in two years; two more were killed by a roadside bomb Thursday.
Current U.S. missions could be carried out with a smaller force and some could be carried out from bases in a third country, officials said.
But the longer the decision takes, the less time Obama has to explain to the American public the importance of preserving a presence, and the more he risks clouding an election-year message that he has overseen the end of the Iraq war.
Obama separated himself from the Democratic field in the 2008 primaries largely by his opposition to the war, and he has withdrawn more than 100,000 troops from Iraq since taking office.
“We take comfort in knowing that the tide of war is receding,” Obama told a prime-time audience last month in a speech that described the dwindling U.S. presence in Iraq and his troop withdrawal plans in Afghanistan.