Here we go again. Only months after the United States and Iraq failed to come to an agreement on a post-2011 troop presence, NATO is now scrambling to negotiate an extension of its own training mission in Iraq, and the prospects don't look good.
"Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has repeatedly asked NATO to stay," Ivo Daalder, the U.S. Ambassador to NATO, said at a Friday morning breakfast meeting of the Defense Writers Group, an organization that brings reporters together with senior officials to discuss world affairs over greasy eggs and bacon.
"We are trying to make that desire for the NATO training mission to stay a reality," said Daalder, explaining that intense negotiations are underway but that, without an agreement by Dec. 31, all NATO trainers will have to leave Iraq.
Daalder acknowledged that the main sticking point in the negotiations is the requirement that NATO troops in Iraq be given immunity from prosecution in Iraqi courts. The lack of an agreement on immunity for U.S. troops was the main reason that the American presence was not extended beyond this year.
The White House maintains that President Barack Obama always wanted to withdraw all troops from Iraq by the end of 2011, but several officials in the Defense and State Departments had publicly and privately been working hard to negotiate an extension. Ultimately, all the senior officials within the Obama administration agreed that, without immunity for U.S. troops, an extension was not possible.
The Obama administration had demanded in its negotiations with the Iraqi government that any immunity agreement would have to be formally approved by Iraq's parliament, known as the Council of Representatives (COR), in order to reassure the U.S. government that the immunity would be honored. Due to the explosiveness of the issue in domestic Iraqi politics, that proved impossible.
Pressed by The Cable, Daalder wouldn't say whether the NATO negotiators were demanding that any immunity agreement be passed by the COR, but he did say that any agreement on immunity would have to be acceptable to all 28 NATO member states, including the U.S. government.
"The same immunity problem of the American trainers' agreement is facing us today with NATO," Qassim al-Aaraji, a member of the COR's security and defense committee, told Military Times on Thursday.
The Iraqi army is badly in need of assistance as it tries to make up for the lack of U.S. military support. The Iraqi armed forces have not developed to the point where they can conduct large-scale maneuvers, coordinate air and ground forces, or manage a complicated logistics system for military supply, according to several reports from Iraq.
NATO hasn't given up on the negotiations, but it now has less than one month to complete the negotiations, and then to receive approval of any agreement by both NATO and Iraq.
"We are working it hard. Time is running out," Daalder said.
Meanwhile, Vice President Joe Biden's trip to Iraq this week has ended. Administration officials traveling with him made clear that, after U.S. troops leave this month, they are not coming back.
"There is no discussion, no contemplation, no thought of returning U.S. troops to Iraq," a senior administration official told reporters traveling with Biden on Wednesday.
That seems to contradict what Defense Secretary Leon Panetta told the Senate Armed Services Committee on Nov. 15, when he said, "Our hope would be that this isn't just a State Department presence, but that ultimately we'll be able to negotiate a further presence for the military as well."