The Washington Post

So what’s the goal of our being in Iraq again?

It’s time to take a cold look at what U.S. goals in Iraq should be.

After some 4,470 U.S. military deaths, 33,000 wounded and almost $800 billion spent in the past eight years, there should be greater clarity about what the United States hopes to accomplish, even in the next 12 months.

Walter Pincus reports on intelligence, defense and foreign policy for The Washington Post. He first came to the paper in 1966 and has covered numerous subjects, including nuclear weapons and arms control, politics and congressional investigations. He was among Post reporters awarded the 2002 Pulitzer Prize for national reporting. View Archive

When U.S. combat troops leave by the end of this year, U.S. Ambassador to Iraq James Jeffrey will be in charge of some 11,000 diplomats, aid workers, military and civilian contract trainers, and more than 5,000 private security personnel. The salaries and programs will cost U.S. taxpayers at least another $5 billion.

But first, let’s pause for a flashback.

It’s Feb. 27, 2003. The country had been prepped for months with stories about the threat from Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction. More than 100,000 U.S. troops are poised to invade. Then-Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz, who supplied the intellectual underpinning for the invasion, gave the House Budget Committee another reason to attack. Iraqis represented “23 million of the most educated people in the Arab world, who are going to welcome us as liberators.”

It’s March 27, 2003, eight days after the invasion. Wolfowitz is before the House Appropriations Committee. He told the members that since Iraq’s oil fields were not destroyed, “we’re dealing with a country that can really finance its own reconstruction, and relatively soon.”

Needless to say, the United States has paid some $61 billion for reconstruction and assistance programs in Iraq. And Stuart Bowen, special inspector general for Iraq reconstruction, said recently that some $6.6 billion cannot be accounted for. In that same period, Iraq has paid $107 billion of its own funds.

In fiscal 2012, U.S. assistance is scheduled to run roughly $325 million, with more than $200 million going to democracy, governance and human rights programs. But the organizations running these programs face security problems.

It’s been more than eight years since Saddam was deposed, yet Iraq — and even Baghdad — remain a war zone for Americans. Along with those 5,000 private contractor guards needed on the ground, the State Department is now looking to hire a contractor to provide drones for aerial surveillance.

In addition, last Wednesday, the Swedish defense group Saab AB announced that it had received a $23.7 million order from State to buy its Giraffe multi-mission radar system and related services. Two units owned by the U.S. Army are now on loan to State to protect the U.S. Embassy and other buildings in Baghdad’s Green Zone. State had to buy its own drones now because the units take 15 months to build. Then it will return the others to the Army.

The embassy area is “the target of rocket and mortar attacks on an almost daily basis,” according to a State document justifying the purchase. The Giraffe system provides 360-degree coverage with a single unit, says the document, and the capability “to detect, sense and warn of prospective rocket, artillery and mortar attacks.” State even believes it needs protection against “ordnance launched against U.S. personnel via unmanned aerial vehicles, an identified high-risk potential for future attacks,” according to the document.

Has the U.S. investment of blood and treasure gained us the “dramatic and inspiring example of freedom for other nations in the region” that then-President George W. Bush forecast in a February 2003 speech?

Let’s be realistic. It is a country whose historically tense, sometimes brutal tribal and religious internal politics determine both its domestic and foreign policies — whether its government is a dictatorship or democracy.

It’s playing out now in the controversy over thousands of U.S. military trainers remaining in Iraq after Dec. 31. The Baghdad regime is caught up in an internal fight over control of Iraq’s security forces, as well as demands of the group supporting Moqtada al-Sadr that no U.S. troops remain.

The compromise, announced last week after a six-hour meeting of Iraq’s feuding political leaders, was that any remaining trainers would not have legal immunity; training must be conducted on Iraqi installations; and the training goal would be to deter any internal or external threat. They continue to disagree over new Defense or Interior ministers, posts that have been open for almost a year.

Now the United States faces the dilemma of what to do. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta has said that U.S. military forces will stay only if legal immunity is given, as it was before. It exists for U.S. troops around the world. You would expect that U.S. domestic politics would require nothing less in Iraq.

What kind of ally has Washington gained in Baghdad?

Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki spent his years of exile in Syria. As noted in Sunday’s Washington Post, Maliki made clear in a televised interview Sept. 30 that he supports the increasingly brutal Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad, which the U.S. opposes.

The Maliki government has also bucked the United States by supporting the Palestinian effort to gain membership in the United Nations and even Iran’s assertion that it has the right to nuclear technology.

One bright spot for Washington: Iraq’s heavy purchase of almost $12 billion in American weaponry, including the late September announcement of 18 F-16 fighters valued at $3 billion. The aircraft would be part of the program to provide Iraq with the means to protect its airspace from outside intrusions or attacks.

The question arises, however, what neighboring country is a threat? Most of its neighbors, including Israel, have also been sold or given U.S. arms. This again highlights the issue of just what are the U.S. goals in Iraq, and are they realistic?

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