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Keep U.S. troops in Iraq for the long haul

Forces need to stay — with correct mission — to protect interests in region

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No way out
Sept. 27: In the Sept. 26 debate, the three leading candidates for the Democratic presidential nomination refused to promise that they would withdraw all American troops from Iraq by the end of their first term.  Sen. Jim Webb, D-Va., discusses.
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No promises on Iraq
Sept. 26: NBC’s Tim Russert tells MSNBC’s Chris Matthews that an interesting part of Wednesday's debate was the three Democratic front-runners’ answers on Iraq. None would commit to having all U.S. troops out by January 2013.
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Bringing the troops home by 2013
Sept. 26:  Gov. Bill Richardson explains his plan to bring the U.S. troops home from Iraq by 2013 and his disappointment in other candidates for not having similar plans.
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Obama on ending Iraq war
Sept. 26: Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., says he will work diligently to end the war in Iraq before he takes office.

Lt. Col. Rick Francona
Military analyst

In the last Democratic candidate debate, neither of the two front-runners would pledge that by the end of his or her first term there would be no U.S. troops in Iraq. Sen. Barack Obama said he would “drastically reduce our presence there to the mission of protecting our embassy, protecting our civilians and making sure that we’re carrying out counterterrorism activities there.”

There are two separate but related issues here, the continued presence of American forces in Iraq and the definition of their mission. First, let’s look at the definition of the mission. Limiting the troops to the three specific missions articulated by Sen. Obama is not only unrealistic, it’s virtually impossible. If there are American troops in Iraq, they will have to address any and all threats, be they from Iraqi insurgents, Shiite militias or al-Qaida terrorists. Are the troops supposed to ask the affiliation of a threat prior to taking action? Does the senator propose to restrict the military with impossible rules of engagement such as, “Determine that the opposing forces are in fact members of al-Qaida in Iraq before commencing hostilities”?

The senator should have added to his list of missions “protecting America’s vital interests in the region.” In real terms, that means protecting access to Persian Gulf oil — yes, it’s about oil — and maintaining the security of the state of Israel. These have been our interests for years, and adequate protection of those interests requires the presence of American military forces in the region. 

American troop presence in the region is nothing new. The U.S. Navy has maintained a continuous presence in the Persian Gulf since World War II. The headquarters of the Navy’s forces in the region, now called the Fifth Fleet, is in Mina Sulman, Bahrain. Air Force units began deployments to Saudi Arabia soon after the 1979 Iranian revolution — those units are now located in Qatar and the United Arab Emirates. Although the U.S. Central Command tried to get a land force presence in the region, it was unsuccessful until the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in 1990. Since the liberation of Kuwait, American ground forces have maintained a facility there for storage of equipment called prepositioning, or “PREPO” in military parlance, and staging of units entering Iraq. The United States now has defense pacts with several gulf countries, and many of these states regard the United States as a counterbalance to increasing Iranian power and influence in the region.

I don’t believe Sen. Obama would disagree with the premise that we need to keep troops in the Persian Gulf region to protect our national interests. Just as we have had troops in Europe and Asia since the end of World War II, we need to maintain a military presence in the Middle East.  Our interests there are no less vital than our interests elsewhere and are likely more at risk. The rhetoric of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad during his visit to New York and the Israeli airstrike on a possible North Korean nuclear-related facility in northeast Syria underscore the point.

If we can divorce the emotion over the war from the argument, Iraq is an ideal location to project U.S. power throughout the region. It is centrally located and home to excellent facilities such as the sprawling air base at Balad. If we assume that the two primary threats to security in the region are Iran and Syria, an American military presence in Iraq places our forces in a central position to counter those threats with military force if necessary. Combined with effective diplomatic initiatives that have virtually surrounded Syria and almost surrounded Iran, the United States can leverage military presence to bring pressure on these two rogue states.

Iraq is not only centrally located, but it is more accessible via sea, air and land than the other options. The Persian Gulf provides sea access via the newly upgraded ports of al-Basrah and Umm Qasr. Land access from Kuwait and Turkey can be complemented by access from Jordan, whose port at al-Aqaba was Iraq’s proxy port when its access to the Persian Gulf was blocked by Iran during the Iran-Iraq War. Air access via NATO ally Turkey provides excellent access to American military facilities in Europe and Central Asia.

The debate over whether we should have invaded Iraq has become a historical argument. Now that we have forces there, we need to make sure we can address future threats in the region effectively. Troops in Iraq — a stable Iraq, I hope — will give us that ability.

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