America to stay longer in Iraq as Afghan tensions grow
As US Defense Secretary Robert Gates announced US troops could stay in Iraq beyond the agreed withdrawal date planned for December 31, 2011. According to the official, this decision could be made to meet the requirements of the Iraqi government, which is concerned about maintaining peace in the region without American forces. Meanwhile the US has come up against serious challenges in Pakistan and Afghanistan, where anti-American protests are getting out of control. With still unsolved problems in Iraq and Afghanistan, it may not be the wisest move for the US to get involved in another conflict in Libya.
"I think there is interest in having a continuing presence, but the politics are such that we'll just have to wait and see because the initiative ultimately has to come from the Iraqis," said Robert Gates during his meeting with the commander of US military forces in Iraq, Lt Gen Lloyd Austin. And it looks like the Iraqis do want US troops to stay.
Formally the US troops ended combat operations in Iraq, but the situation in the country is still far from peaceful. Not only local officials but also outside experts agree that one of the biggest issues in modern-day Iraq is the constant growth of inter-ethnic rivalry. The most vivid example is Kirkuk – a city divided between Kurdish, Arabian and Turkmenian fractions. The latest escalation of ethnic tensions even required such high-level diplomacy measures as phone calls from Vice President Joseph Biden to Kurdish leaders. According to the locals, the only thing that prevents the city from turning into an arena of extreme violence is the presence of US troops.
“Of course, we want them to stay,” said Sheik Burhan Mizher, an Arab member of the provincial government, referring to US troops.
The other problems that local authorities have to deal with are extremism and insurgency. According to Gates Iraq has made “extraordinary” progress but there is still more work to be done to ensure the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) are able to ensure security in their country.
In February Mr. Gates told a congressional committee that Iraq would face numerous problems after US withdrawal including those related to “logistics and maintenance". General Austin agrees with this statement, saying that the Iraqi government still lacks the ability to maintain its own forces.
At the same time a decision to keep troops in Iraq past the date of withdrawal should be made quickly, since American forces are needed all around the world, including Japan, where 18,000 military personnel are helping to deal with the consequences of recent natural calamities. “If folks here are going to want us to have a presence, we're going to need to get on with it pretty quickly in terms of our planning" says Gates.
But such a decision could easily become an uneasy challenge for the US government and, especially for Barack Obama, whose promise to settle with the Iraq issue was one of the key points of his election platform. The essence of the issue was precisely expressed by Hassan Toran, a Turkmen council member from the troubled city of Kirkuk. “From my point of view, President Obama wants to win a second term and show that he keeps his promises to the American people,” said Toran.
Meanwhile, there could be a problem with keeping another one of the president’s promises – the one about Afghanistan. The situation in Afghanistan had started to deteriorate extremely fast after President Hamid Karzai drew public attention to the act of Koran burning in the US. The official condemnation definitely wasn’t Karzai’s wisest, who had already been experiencing extreme pressure from both the US government and his own people. The Afghan population was already extremely dissatisfied with such acts as the controversial release of CIA contractor Raymond Davis, who was freed after shooting dead two Afghan citizens.
The Koran burning scandal became the last straw that broke the back of the Afghan people. A steady stream of anti-American demonstrations spread all over the country, resulting in violent clashes and several deaths.
Without doubts, this presents perfect opportunities for the Taliban and completely unwinds all US efforts to bring stability to the region. Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan and now Libya – this could be too much, in the lead up to the upcoming US presidential election.