On Saturday, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki confirmed this deadline, saying Iraqi troops are capable or providing security. But given remaining gaps in Iraqi capabilities and the desire among most Iraqi leaders for a long-term security partnership with America, it would not be surprising if the new Iraqi government eventually asks for a modification of the agreement. It may want perhaps 10 to 20,000 US airmen, trainers, logisticians, and special forces to remain for a few more years. If this request is forthcoming, it could generate a lot of political heat back in Washington – but it shouldn’t.
Those residual forces are far less important to America’s long-term relationship with Iraq than the nature of the emerging civilian and political relationship. But even as that relationship is being forged, Congress has slashed $500 million from the budgetary request for the continuing civilian mission in Iraq – which will provide the foundation for our long-term strategic relationship – leaving a shortfall of more than $1 billion.
This presents serious challenges toward realizing the United States’ historic opportunity to establish an enduring and mutually beneficial relationship with a pivotal state in the Middle East. The relationship is two-sided and Iraq needs to play its own role. Building a long-term partnership with Iraq requires that they have an effective, inclusive, and legitimate government. But the agreement on a new Iraqi government leaves many urgent issues unresolved.
Key elements of power-sharing rely upon promises that may not be redeemed. The newly conceived National Council for Strategic Policies is meant to provide strategic oversight and a check on the powers of the prime minister’s office, but it has no constitutional status. Defining the balance of power at the highest levels will be challenging for a new parliament, and the inevitable political struggles will offer endless opportunities for new crises.