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Not So Fast

Don't hold your breath waiting for withdrawal from Iraq.

When it comes to Iraq, "withdrawal" seems to be the word of the day. In Washington, the incoming administration has revived the Obama campaign's 16- month timetable for removing combat troops from Iraq. At his press conference on Monday, for example, Obama said he still thought that timeframe was "realistic" and said he would be meeting with military commanders to discuss "how we proceed" in what he calls a "withdrawal process." Meanwhile, Defense Secretary Robert Gates said that Obama's timeframe was "agreeable," suggesting that the current Pentagon chief has also agreed to a withdrawal.

The agreement ratified on Thanksgiving Day by the Iraqi parliament would seem to lay out a road map for just the kind of withdrawal Obama has promised. It demands that all U.S. forces--with no exceptions--exit the country by the last calendar day of 2011 and that they return to their bases by the end of June 2009. What's more, it mandates that the unsightly international zone in the center of Iraq's capital be dismantled and requires the explicit approval of Iraq's government for any U.S. military actions against Iraq's neighbors or within the country. For those inclined to call America's presence in Iraq an occupation, the Status of Forces Agreement, or sofa, as it is referred to at the Pentagon and Foggy Bottom, appears to end it.

All of this has left many with the impression that American soldiers will be out of Iraq by the time Obama begins his campaign for reelection. Or, as Senator Claire McCaskill told Fox News on Sunday: "The important part about that sofa agreement is it embraces the kind of timetable that Barack Obama made a foundation of his campaign."

For all the talk of withdrawal and timetables, however, nothing like that is likely to happen. It is true that, as a result of the successful surge that the Democrats and some Republicans opposed, tens of thousands of American troops will begin to exit Iraq in the next three years. But American and Iraqi military and diplomatic officials insist that a residual U.S. force of considerable size is likely to remain for the medium to long term, as will the U.S. bases in Iraq that Democrats over the last two years have insisted must not be permanent.

A good picture of the size and shape of America's future presence in Iraq can be found in a memo sent by retired General Barry McCaffrey earlier last month to the head of the social sciences department at West Point, Colonel Michael Meese. The "after action report" was written following a tour of Iraq that McCaffrey took in October, during which he met with Iraqi political and military leaders, as well as General Ray Odierno and Ambassador Ryan Crocker. McCaffrey has been a reliable weathervane of military thinking throughout the Iraq war (though his media career likely ended after The New York Times published an expose on his ties to defense contractors last week). He has also been a reliable surrogate for the thinking of Odierno and General David Petraeus, who understandably have tried to steer clear of the politics of the Iraq war.

In the report, obtained by The New Republic, McCaffrey writes, "We should assume that the Iraqi government will eventually ask us to stay beyond 2011 with a residual force of trainers, counterterrorist capabilities, logistics, and air power. (My estimate--perhaps a force of 20,000 to 40,000 troops)." This estimate of what a training and support mission would require was echoed in interviews with a State Department official and two military sources--who requested anonymity--when asked what kind of American presence they foresaw in Iraq following 2011.

McCaffrey's reasoning rests in part on his view of the Iraqi military, an institution he says has vastly improved yet still needs mentoring, equipment, and support from Americans on the ground. In his report, McCaffrey writes that Iraq's border-control service is "anemic" and that the army cannot currently conduct military operations without U.S. support and equipment. "The confidence of the Iraqi combat force is still dependant on US mentoring and backup," he writes. "Their officers are very explicit on this point--the iraqi security forces do not want the u.s. combat units to leave--yet." The capital letters are McCaffrey's.

Backing up McCaffrey's assessment is the fact that Iraq's military has requested everything from U.S. surveillance equipment to F-16 fighter jets. With U.S hardware also comes U.S. training. "It is extremely important that the Iraqis have made it clear they want to purchase Western military systems and particularly American military systems," Fred Kagan, a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute who helped craft the surge strategy in 2006, says. Such purchases, Kagan explains, "impl[y] an expectation of a certain kind of relationship with the supplier. There are upgrades and replacements over time. When you have people training your soldiers on how to use the equipment, how to upgrade it, how to work it into their doctrine, who are those trainers going to be? It is a below-the-line statement of alignment."

As Crocker acknowledged in Baghdad last month at the signing ceremony of the sofa, the occasion "reminds us that, at a time when United States forces will continue to withdraw from Iraq in recognition of superlative security gains ... our relationship will continue to develop in many other ways."

There is other evidence that the United States may keep a significant force in Iraq for a while--and it's built right into the structure of the sofa itself. In its current state, the sofa appears to be firm on the withdrawal of troops. But, even now, the document does allow for individual basing agreements to be negotiated by a "Joint Military Operations Coordination Committee" (jmocc). The jmocc, according to American and Iraqi officials interviewed for this article, will give provincial authorities a major role in negotiating the leases of bases in their areas. The fact that the Iraq agreement does not establish the terms of these leases (unlike nearly every other sofa America has signed with countries from Uzbekistan to Germany) strongly indicates that the agreement will be amended down the line.

What's more, both the Kurds and Sunni Arabs in western Iraq, where the Al Assad Airbase is located, are likely to facilitate a U.S. military presence for a long time. A Washington representative for the Kurdistan Regional Government, Qubad Talabani, whose father Jalal is president of Iraq, told me last week, "As Kurdish leaders have said in the past, American forces will always be welcome in the Kurdistan region, and we look forward to working with our American friends within the framework of this law to discuss America's long-term presence in our region." Far from booting U.S. forces out of the country, he believes that the sofa "gives America the legal cover for expanding their already good relations with Iraqi security institutions." And the influential Sunni leader Sheik Ahmad Rishawi, head of the Anbar Awakening, told me in an interview in June that he had hoped a long-term treaty with America would be based on "mutual friendship" and compared the future sofa to similar accords struck with postwar Japan and Germany, where American troops are garrisoned to this day. The committees established in the new agreement are expected to be the vehicles by which Sunni Arabs and Kurds negotiate longer-term leases for the U.S. bases in their respective areas.

There is even wiggle room on the question of the June 30, 2009, deadline for U.S. "combat forces" to return to their bases. Most of the nearly 150,000 troops in Iraq today are classified as combat troops, but, as the United States transitions to its new role in Iraq, the troops that stay on will likely remain embedded with Iraqi troops but be reclassified as "support troops," even though their function will remain the same. Three military officials told me this week that, already, the Military Transition Teams (MiTT)--the special units deployed to mentor Iraqi battalions for the surge--currently classified as "combat units" are being redesignated as "support units," as are the force-protection and quick-reaction forces, in order to skirt the language of the sofa. "It's a species of magic," one Pentagon official says. "After a period of time, the MiTT teams will all become support troops."

Even the agreement's language prohibiting attacks by U.S. forces from Iraq on its neighbors would not address secret special operations missions, such as the raid last month into Syria on an Al Qaeda compound over the border. These raids take place even now, notes Kagan, when the existing U.N. Security Council resolution, which authorized the U.S. presence in Iraq, does not permit attacks from Iraq into the territory of its neighbors. "It remains the case the Iraqis would have to decide whether they wanted to know about it or not, or whether they wanted to stop it. None of this is affected by the sofa," he says. One military source puts it this way: "No agreement would ever put in writing an explicit permission to conduct black operations in neighboring countries. This is not something that is ever done."

What the sofa does do, however, is establish the political legitimacy of American troops in Iraq for the next three years and provides a framework beyond that. It is perhaps for this reason that the remnants of Moqtada Al Sadr's organization have protested the agreement, as have more and more of the hard-line clerics in Iran. And it is for the same reason that the antiwar crowd is worried: The sofa clearly ends any legitimate claim that America's presence in Iraq is an occupation at all. From the looks of it, the end of the war and the beginning of a long-term friendship look very much the same.

Eli Lake is a contributing editor at The New Republic.

This article originally ran in the December 24, 2008, issue of the magazine.