Recent media reports have suggested that the Obama administration has decided to reduce sharply the number of U.S. troops it is willing to keep in Iraq beyond this year, possibly to as few as 3,000. Administration officials have denied that any decision has been made on force levels. We hope that is true, because such an approach would disregard the recommendations of our military commanders, jeopardize Iraq’s tenuous stability and needlessly put at risk all of the hard-won gains the United States has achieved there at enormous cost in blood and treasure.
We have frequently traveled to Iraq, meeting with national leaders in Baghdad, local officials throughout the country, and U.S. military commanders and diplomats. What we have consistently heard on these visits is that Iraq’s security and stability will require a continuing — though greatly reduced — U.S. military presence after the end of this year, when our current security agreement with Iraq expires. We have also heard that, given the essential missions that this post-2011 force must carry out, no fewer than 10,000 and as many as 25,000 troops will be required. No one has suggested that 3,000 would be enough.
The reasoning was laid out before the Senate Armed Services Committee in February by our top civilian and military leaders in Baghdad, Ambassador James Jeffrey and Gen. Lloyd Austin. As they explained, significant gaps in capability persist in the Iraqi Security Forces that cannot be closed before the end of 2011, including intelligence collection and fusion, counterterrorism operations, training and maintenance, and the protection of Iraq’s airspace. Either some U.S. forces must remain to help Iraqis fill these gaps, or they will go unaddressed — at the expense of Iraq’s security and ours.
The mission perhaps most critical to Iraq’s stability is in northern Iraq, where tensions between Arabs and Kurds run high. On several occasions, most recently in February, these tensions nearly turned violent. Only the stabilizing presence of U.S. forces has averted the outbreak of conflict that could spark a new civil war. To avoid that terrible outcome, it is essential for U.S. troops to retain a presence in these disputed territories after 2011. As a matter of military math, this mission will not be possible with only 3,000 troops.
Although any new security agreement must be negotiated with the Iraqi government — for which the politics of this question are extremely sensitive — the Iraqis do not appear to be the force pushing to reduce a future U.S. military presence. In fact, all of Iraq’s major political blocs, with the exception of the Sadrists, agreed last month to begin negotiations for a U.S. military mission beyond this year. This was a major breakthrough and reflects what Iraq’s key leaders have told us: They want U.S. troops to stay in Iraq.
Massoud Barzani, president of the Kurdistan Regional Government, reiterated this earlier this month, warning: “Iraqi security forces are still not prepared to secure protection for Iraq.” If we fail to conclude a robust new security agreement that safeguards Iraq’s stability, it will be wrong to claim that all of the blame rests on the Iraqi side.
Some may claim that a smaller troop presence in Iraq after this year is necessitated by our fiscal woes. We strongly disagree. Whether the United States has 3,000 troops or a larger force in Iraq will make no meaningful difference to our budgetary situation. But it may prove the difference between a stable, democratic, U.S.-aligned Iraq vs. one that slides back into chaos — and that outcome could cost Americans enormously. It would also be viewed, throughout the world, as a major defeat for the United States and a boon to our two most dangerous adversaries, al-Qaeda and Iran.
When Ambassador Ryan Crocker departed Baghdad in 2009, he warned: “The events for which the Iraq war will be remembered by us and by the world have not yet happened.” Those events are now upon us. Nearly 4,500 Americans, and far more Iraqis, have given their lives to achieve the real but tenuous stability that Iraq enjoys. Whether that stability will deepen or unravel has much to do with the choices our government makes in the coming weeks.
It is to President Obama’s credit that, after entering office, he did not immediately withdraw all our troops from Iraq, as many of his supporters hoped and demanded. Instead he adopted a more cautious drawdown, counseled by our military commanders. For the sake of our current and future national security, we ask the president to again heed the advice of our commanders and others with experience in Iraq and reject proposals for a radically smaller troop presence there, which risks being a very serious foreign policy and national security mistake for our country.
John McCain is a Republican senator from Arizona. Joseph I. Lieberman is an independent Democratic senator from Connecticut. Lindsey O. Graham is a Republican senator from South Carolina.