May 31, 2007 -- WITH congressional maneuverings over the funding of U.S. troops in Iraq over for now, it may be time to discuss ways in which the American military presence might end.
If one listens to anti-American circles, the United States doesn't intend to ever leave Iraq. In fact, the Americans have never tried to stay in any country against its wishes.
In 1966, French President Charles de Gaulle decided to take his country out of the military part of NATO and asked the Americans to close their bases in France. President Lyndon Johnson immediately complied, ending more than two decades of U.S military presence on French soil. In 1969, Col. Moammar Khadafy, who had just seized power in Tripoli, asked the United States to close its vast Wheels base, a key part of NATO's strategy in the Mediterranean. President Richard Nixon complied immediately.
In 1979, the new Khomeinist regime in Iran demanded the closure of 27 U.S.-operated listening posts set up under the Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty (SALT) along the Irano-Soviet borders to monitor Soviet missile tests. President Jimmy Carter complied, although both the Soviet Union and the United Nations had sanctioned the listening posts.
In the 1980s, the United States gave up several bases in a number of countries, including Subic Bay in the Philippines. It also withdrew its military personnel from Pakistan after the Southeast Asian Treaty Organization (SEATO) lapsed into oblivion. In 2002, America withdrew its troops and materiel from Saudi Arabia after the government in Riyadh demanded it.
In Iraq, the U.S.-led military presence is sanctioned by the United Nations, and has been twice endorsed by the Iraqi people in free elections with massive voter turnouts. Both the U.N. and the elected Iraqi government have the right to demand an end to the Coalition's military presence at any time.
But withdrawal must be considered in light of how these forces serve Iraqi and U.S. interests. The U.S.-led Coalition in Iraq has three key functions:
* To train, equip and combat-test the new Iraqi army and security forces. This task is expected to be largely complete by 2009. The new Iraqi army now has 129 battalions, of which almost half have already been tested in actual combat.
Despite the fact that most NATO allies have failed to meet their quotas for training a new Iraqi officers' corps, the resurgent Iraqi army is beginning to have the minimum of cadres and commanders it needs to function on its own.
* To fight the various terrorist groups still operating in two or three provinces plus some neighborhoods in Baghdad.
Fighting terrorism is a long-term business, however. Egypt needed 22 years to crush its terrorists; Algeria hasn't yet won complete victory against its enemies after 12 years. Crushing terrorism took Turkey nearly two decades, and remnants of the monster are still able to strike occasionally. Thus, the Coalition's withdrawal from Iraq can't be conditioned on a complete and final defeat of the various terrorist forces now operating there. What is important is to have an Iraqi army capable of doing what its Egyptian, Algerian and Turkish counterparts did over many years.
* To deter Iraq's predatory neighbors from intervening in its affairs. This task seldom receives the attention it merits.
The Islamic Republic's ambitions in Iraq are too well known to be detailed here. And it was no accident that Tehran produced Muqtada al-Sadr like a magician' rabbit out of a hat on the eve of U.S.-Iran talks in Baghdad last week. Tehran thinks the Americans will leave Iraq once President Bush is out of the White House, and is determined to take the credit for having "driven the Great Satan" out of the region. It is obvious that Iraq, even if its new army is fully functional, will not be in a position to defend itself against Iranian military pressure combined with terrorism by Tehran-backed armed groups across the board.
But the Islamic Republic is not alone in nurturing dangerous ambitions in Iraq. Turkey, too, is looking for the first opportunity to advance its own agenda - both directly, via military pressure, and indirectly through the Turcoman ethnic minority. Ankara cites the Treaty of Lausanne (1923), which granted Turkey "rights of observation" in Mosul and Kirkuk. In the last decade of Saddam Hussein's rule, Turkey also obtained the right to send troops into northern Iraq, ostensibly in hot pursuit of Kurdish armed rebels. It is obvious that the new Iraqi democracy can't allow Turkey, or any other neighbor, such privileges.
Although less dangerous, if only because they lack the clout, Syria and Jordan also harbor ambitions of their own in Iraq.
Thus, new Iraq would need an allied military presence to deter threats from its neighbors and allow its fragile democracy to strike roots. A similar situation existed in 1950s West Germany, where NATO's presence protected the new democracy and deterred the Soviet threat. The U.S. military presence in South Korea continues to play a similar function in support of the democratic government in Seoul and as a deterrent to Pyongyang's ambitions.
It is not unreasonable to think that the bulk of the U.S.-led Coalition forces could be out of Iraq by the spring of 2009, leaving behind a token military presence designed to deter the schemes of Iraq's dangerous neighbors. The next general election in 2009 will allow the Iraqi people an opportunity to decide whether or not they wish the U.S. and its allies to offer them that help.
The U.S. intervention in Afghanistan and Iraq has created a new status quo that needs to be defended, just as was the case in postwar Europe and the Korean Peninsula.
Iranian-born journalist Amir Taheri is based in Europe.