Washington - A familiar group of mainly neo-conservative hawks – many of whom championed the 2003 invasion of Iraq –released an open letter to President Barack Obama Thursday urging him to retain a substantial military force in that Middle East country beyond this year.
Released by the Foreign Policy Initiative (FPI) – the successor organisation of the Project for the New American Century (PNAC) that championed the 2003 U.S. invasion – the letter warns against reported plans by the administration to reduce Washington's troop presence to 4,000 after Dec. 31, the date by which, according to a 2008 U.S.- Iraqi agreement, all U.S. forces are to be withdrawn.
Washington currently has about 45,000 U.S. troops in Iraq, down from an all-time high of 170,000 in late 2007 when they were used to tamp down sectarian violence that brought the country to the edge of all- out civil war.
The letter was signed by 40 policy and defence analysts, including a number of former senior George W. Bush administration officials who played key roles in the invasion and subsequent occupation of Iraq; among them, the former head of the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA), Paul Bremer; his spokesman, Dan Senor; former Undersecretary of Defence Eric Edelman; and Vice President Dick Cheney's Mideast aide, John Hannah; as well as former White House aides Karl Rove, Marc Thiessen, and Peter Wehner.
A 4,000-troop residual force "is significantly smaller than what U.S. military commanders on the ground have reportedly recommended and would limit our ability to ensure that Iraq remains stable and free from significant foreign influence in the years to come," the letter asserted.
"You have fulfilled your campaign commitment to the nation to end the war in Iraq," it went on. "Now, we request that you ensure that in doing so, we do not lose the peace."
The letter was released despite the fact that the administration has not publicly announced how many troops it would like to leave behind in Iraq, presuming that the Nouri al-Maliki government, which itself is reportedly deeply divided on the issue, agrees to permit an extension.
Despite repeated exhortations by top Pentagon officials beginning last spring, Maliki was able only last month to line up sufficient support within his cabinet to get its authority to begin talks on a new agreement. Moreover, that authority came with the condition that any remaining U.S. troops be confined to "training" activities, rather than combat or related operations.
Maliki's government has not itself indicated publicly how many troops it is prepared to accept, although key officials have reportedly told their U.S. interlocutors that any number greater than 10,000 would carry too heavy a political cost for the Shia-led government.
The U.S. military commander in Iraq, Gen. Lloyd Austin, had called for at least 20,000, but, in light of Baghdad's resistance, whittled that down to between 14,000 and 18,000.
When word leaked out last week that Vice President Joe Biden and Pentagon chief Leon Panetta were recommending a force of only three to four thousand, the hawks began mobilising against it.
"It would be one of the biggest blunders in American foreign policy to lose Iraq because you had 3,000 troops when you need 10 to 15 (thousand)," warned Republican Sen. Lindsay Graham. "Iran would love that."
FPI, which was founded at the advent of the Obama administration in 2009 by the two co-founders of PNAC, neo-conservative ideologues Robert Kagan and William Kristol, along with Senor, has acted very much like its predecessor. With a small staff, it has sought to coordinate positions of various institutions and individuals on key issues, notably U.S. policy toward the Middle East, China, and Russia, by publishing letters and position papers and organising occasional forums.
Like its predecessor, its associates are predominantly neo- conservative hawks with ties to influential right-wing politicians and think tanks, such as the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), the Hudson Institute, the Heritage Foundation, and the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.
PNAC's 1997 charter was signed by more than half a dozen individuals - including Cheney; his top aide, I. Lewis 'Scooter' Libby; former Pentagon chief Donald Rumsfeld and his first deputy, Paul Wolfowitz - who later took top foreign policy posts in the Bush administration.
It played a key role in building support for ousting Iraq's Saddam Hussein, working closely to that end with the now-notorious head of the Iraqi National Congress, Ahmad Chalabi. (Ironically, Chalabi has been among the most outspoken Iraqi politicians to oppose any extension of a U.S. military presence beyond the Dec. 31 deadline.)
In a letter published only nine days after 9/11, PNAC proposed a multi-staged plan for Bush's "war on terror" that called for expanding the potential target list beyond Al-Qaeda and the Taliban to include not only Iraq, but also Syria and Iran, if they did not halt their support for Lebanon's Hezbollah. In a subsequent letter, it urged Bush to cut off all ties to the Palestinian Authority (PA), insisting that "Israel's fight against terrorism is our fight."
The FPI letter's signatories, more than 30 of whom were either associated with PNAC or served in the Bush administration, said they were "gravely concerned" about reports that the White House is considering a residual force of only 4,000 or fewer U.S. troops.
While Iraqi security forces have proved increasingly capable of defending the country against internal threats, it said, "they are not yet able to defend Iraq from external forces." In addition, a "significant (U.S.) military presence" was needed in various parts of Iraq, notably in contested Kurdish-Arab areas, to help build confidence, according to the letter.
The letter also focused considerable attention on the threat allegedly posed by Iran which, it charged, "has increased its attempts to expand its influence in Iraq, including through the killing of American forces and support to Iraqi political parties. Maintaining a robust American presence in-country would blunt these efforts, and help ensure Iraq remains oriented away from Iran and a long-term ally of the United States."
"A successful, democratic Iraq will remain a model for other emerging Arab democracies and one day, its neighbour, Iran," it went on. "However, a failing state in the heart of the Middle East would destabilize the region, empower Iran, and make vain more than eight years of efforts by the United States in Iraq."