As Iraq faces its worst violence in half a decade, retired Marine Gen. John Allen has a message for Washington's chattering classes: It didn't have to be this way.
Speaking at a conference in Washington, the newly-retired four-star general said if U.S. forces had remained in the country, Iraq may not be unraveling to the extent that it is today.
"We weren't there long enough to provide the top cover for the solution of many of the political difficulties that might have resolved itself had we had been there for a longer period of time," he told attendees of the Foreign Policy Initiative forum. "So consequently, as we departed, we have seen those tectonic plates begin to grind against each other and that has created instability and the body count is going up, the bloodletting is going up."
Allen, a widely-respected general, was credited by President Obama for stemming the tide of Iraq's insurgency as a "battle-tested combat leader" in Anbar Province. He was later assigned as commander of the International Security Assistance Force, the allied coalition in Afghanistan. Without question, sectarian violence has skyrocketed in Iraq since U.S. troops departed in late 2011. Moreover, al-Qaeda and its affiliates appear stronger than ever, executing mass-casualty attacks many times a month in an onslaught that has killed more than 6,000 Iraqis this year -- a shocking figure that recalls the darkest days of 2006-07.
But whether a lingering U.S. presence could've benefited Iraq's security situation is subject to debate.
Yes, U.S. officials sought to keep several thousand troops in Iraq as a "residual force." However, discussions ultimately broke down over the issue of immunity for U.S. troops in Iraqi courts. Without the deal, the 2008 Status of Forces Agreement set the deadline for all American troops to leave Iraq by Dec. 31, 2011.
But even if U.S. diplomats had somehow negotiated a new Status of Forces Agreement, the troop numbers floated at the time were a relative pittance: 8,000 to 12,000 troops -- mostly for training purposes. That's nowhere near the more than 160,000 troops that existed in Iraq during the surge. With Iraq now experiencing the worst violence in the last five years, the idea that these residual 12,000 troops could keep the peace in the same way raises doubts.
But putting aside the general's argument, the Obama administration is being pressured to do more to stem the sectarian violence in the country; Its desire to commit remains unclear.
Last week, the White House announced that on Nov. 1, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki will visit President Obama to discuss U.S.-Iraqi coordination on security issues. On that topic, Iraqi officials tell The Cable that the idea of letting U.S. combat troops back in Iraq is still too politically toxic, but they are offering other suggestions, such as U.S. military equipment, advisers, air surveillance and even drone strikes.
Thus far, the administration has rejected the idea of deploying armed drones in Iraq, and analysts aren't surprised.
"The Iraqis are asking us to do their dirty work for them," Sam Brannen, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, told The Cable. "The Iraqis had a chance to keep U.S. troops and U.S. advisers on their soil and they chose not to."
Brannen added that U.S. officials have reasons to be skeptical. "They're basically saying, ‘fix our problem for us.' But that's not how security cooperation works, especially when the threat on their soil is not a threat on our soil and would surely entangle us in their internal politics."