By | April 4, 2008
WASHINGTON — A key adviser to Senator Obama’s campaign is recommending in a confidential paper that America keep between 60,000 and 80,000 troops in Iraq as of late 2010, a plan at odds with the public pledge of the Illinois senator to withdraw combat forces from Iraq within 16 months of taking office.
The paper, obtained by The New York Sun, was written by Colin Kahl for the center-left Center for a New American Security. In “Stay on Success: A Policy of Conditional Engagement,” Mr. Kahl writes that through negotiations with the Iraqi government “the U.S. should aim to transition to a sustainable over-watch posture (of perhaps 60,000–80,000 forces) by the end of 2010 (although the specific timelines should be the byproduct of negotiations and conditions on the ground).”
Mr. Kahl is the day-to-day coordinator of the Obama campaign’s working group on Iraq. A shorter and less detailed version of this paper appeared on the center’s Web site as a policy brief.
Both Mr. Kahl and a senior Obama campaign adviser reached yesterday said the paper does not represent the campaign’s Iraq position. Nonetheless, the paper could provide clues as to the ultimate size of the residual American force the candidate has said would remain in Iraq after the withdrawal of combat brigades. The campaign has not publicly discussed the size of such a force in the past.
This is not the first time the opinion of an adviser to the Obama campaign has differed with the candidate’s stated Iraq policy. In February, Mr. Obama’s first foreign policy tutor, Samantha Power, told BBC that the senator’s current Iraq plan would likely change based on the advice of military commanders in 2009. She has since resigned her position as a formal adviser.
The political ramifications of the disclosure are yet to be seen. The perception of a harder line in Iraq could help Mr. Obama combat charges by Senator McCain in a general election that Mr. Obama favors a hasty surrender and retreat in Iraq. But it could hurt the Obama campaign with anti-war voters in the Democratic primaries. Mr. Obama’s rival for the Democratic nomination, Senator Clinton, has called for withdrawing troops from Iraq, but an architect of the surge has told the Sun that she has been wary of a precipitous withdrawal. In a situation with some parallels to this one, Mr. Obama suffered some political damage on the trade issue when he called publicly for a renegotiation of NAFTA while a policy adviser reportedly met with Canadian officials and downplayed the chances of a NAFTA retreat.
In an interview yesterday, a senior Obama foreign affairs adviser, Susan Rice, said the Iraq working group is not the last word on the campaign’s Iraq policy.
“We have experts and scholars with a range of views and Barack appreciates this range of views. They are in think tanks and like me they write in their own voice, they are people who do their independent scholarship. Barack Obama cannot be held accountable for what we all write,” she said. Ms. Rice said she had not seen the paper, which is marked as a draft and “not for attribution without author’s permission.”
Mr. Kahl yesterday said, “This has absolutely zero to do with the campaign.” He added, “There are elements that are consistent with the Democratic Party’s approach, and I will leave it to others to find out if there are elements that are not.”
Mr. Kahl’s approach would call on the remaining troops in Iraq to play an “over-watch role.” The term is used by Multinational Forces Iraq to describe the long term goal of the coalition force presence in the country, Mr. Kahl said in an interview.
“It refers to the U.S. being out of the lead, largely in a support role. It doesn’t mean the U.S. does not do things like targeted counter-terrorism missions or continue to train and advise the Iraqis,” he said. “It would not be 150,000 Americans taking the lead in counterinsurgency.”
Mr. Obama’s policy to date also allows for a residual force for Iraq. In early Iowa debates, the senator would not pledge to remove all soldiers from Iraq, a distinction from his promise to withdraw all combat brigades. Also, Mr. Obama has stipulated that he would be open to having the military train the Iraqi Security Forces if he received guarantees that those forces would not be the shock troops of one side of an Iraqi civil war.
But the Obama campaign has also not said how many troops would make up this residual force. “We have not put a number on that. It depends on the circumstances on the ground,” Ms. Rice said. She added, “It would be worse than folly, it would be dangerous, to put a hard number on the residual forces.”
Mr. Kahl’s paper laid out what he called a “middle way” between unlimited engagement in Iraq and complete and rapid disengagement. The approach is contingent, he said, on the progress and willingness of Iraq’s major confessional parties in reaching political accommodation.
“There is a fundamental difference in the assumption between the Democratic approach and the Bush-McCain approach. That approach is premised on the assumption the Iraqi government wants to reach accommodation and what they need is time. The surge is premised on the notion of creating breathing space,” Mr. Kahl said. He added that his strategy would pressure and entice the Iraqi government to begin political accommodation by not only starting the withdrawal, but also by stating that America had no intention to hold permanent bases in the country.