I can’t follow the mass of speculation on the timetable for leaving Iraq, and I don’t think anybody else can either. On the one hand we see continuing large-scale coalition involvement, such as the [largest air assault since 2003](http://www.guardian.co.uk/Iraq/Story/0,,1733050,00.html) and [the move of 3500 US troops back into Iraq](http://www.fox6.com/news/national/story.aspx?content_id=6936F2D2-A0A0-456A-8AF4-E4A89C1B9C39&rss=national). On the other hand, Nuri al-Maliki is [talking](http://www.guardian.co.uk/Iraq/Story/0,,1781019,00.html) about getting troops out of Iraq by the end of this year.
But that doesn’t matter so much. The real question is what ‘withdrawal’ means. It doesn’t mean abandoning political control of Iraq – that’s something I’ll write about more in a couple of days. But even militarily, it’s unlikely that all foreign troops will leave the country. More likely, the Americans will retreat further into a few small strongholds, retain bases to enhance their regional power. They will keep some control over the Iraqi military with ‘trainers’ and ‘advisers’, and by ensuring that air power and other heavy equipment is kept for the Americans only.
People have been writing about this for some time now. The Iraq Analysis Group has [collected](http://www.iraqanalysis.org/info/364) some of the more prominent, and [Sarah Meyer](http://www.globalresearch.ca/index.php?context=viewArticle&code=MEY20060411&articleId=2257) of GlobalResearch has collated many relevant news reports.
Below the cut, I delve into the ‘enduring bases’ theory, and swerve dangerously close to conspiracy theories. Please, please take this as me collecting my thoughts, and not as a prediction of what will happen….
The most commonly-predicted pattern sees the Coalition retreating to small, heavily-fortified enclaves, from which they can exert influence over Iraq while remaining relatively safe. This is what most Iraqis believe the US will do; according to a [poll](http://www.worldpublicopinion.org/pipa/articles/home_page/165.php?nid=&id=&pnt=165&lb=hmpg1) early this year, 80% of Iraqis believe that “the US government plans to have permanent bases in Iraq” even after Iraq is stabilized.
This suspicion appears to be confirmed by the Pentagon’s plans for 14 “enduring bases” in Iraq. The term ‘enduring’ seems to have been chosen to avoid the political stigma of discussing ‘permanent’ bases, but [in practice there seems to be little difference](http://www.house.gov/rothman/news_releases/2006/apr5_iraq.htm). Hundreds of millions of dollars [have already been spent](http://www.truthout.org/docs_2006/040206E.shtml) on building up these bases. [Tom Engelhardt](http://tomdispatch.com/index.mhtml?pid=59774) writes eloquently about them, “vast spaceships” planted in the middle of Iraq, full of advanced technology and ‘geostrategic dreaming’. As Tom argues, the more resources are poured into these bases, the less likely they are to be handed over to an Iraqi government.
From these bases, the Coalition will continue to perform some of what it has been doing in Iraq for the past 3 years. Gone will be the military patrols and the occasional humanitarian work. The coalition will scale back to protecting its own interests: military campaigns against armed insurgent groups,projecting power across the Middle East, controlling the Iraqi security forces through ‘trainers’ and ‘advisers’, and possibly protecting parts of the oil infrastructure.
It appears that the military element will be focussed on large-scale air attacks on anti-government forces. It is striking that many of the ‘enduring bases’ are air bases: Al Asad air base, Balad air base, Tallil air base, among others. The reason for this was best explained by Seymour Hersh in a [spectacular article](http://www.newyorker.com/fact/content/articles/051205fa_fact) in December’s _New Yorker_. He argues that:
A key element of the drawdown plans, not mentioned in the President’s public statements, is that the departing American troops will be replaced by American airpower.
This change from infantry to airpower will reduce the number of American casualties, while rendering the Iraqi government dependent on military assistance from the US
As for training, coalition officials admit that some of their officers [will remain in Iraq for many years](http://www.informationclearinghouse.info/article12606.htm) as trainers, working within the Iraqi army, police and security forces. How much power accrues to these advisers will depend on the balance of power within Iraq – namely, how totally the Government of Iraq is dependent on American support.
Then, we move onto an element of the ‘enduring bases’ strategy which taps into one of the most cherished themes of left-wing commentators: that the Iraq war was about increasing American power in the Middle East. Permanent bases in Iraq would confirm this fear, allowing the American military and air force to operate more easily throughout the region, including threatening Iran. As far as I know this hasn’t been discussed by US military or political insiders, but then it would be politically dangerous to openly discuss this. Moreover, using these bases would drastically increase political tension in Iraq – for example, launching an attack on Iran from bases in Iraq would stir up immense anger among Shiite groups.
So, that’s a first shot at what military withdrawal could involve, at least if you’re of a fairly paranoid mindset. I’ve not even begun to think through the social and humanitarian implications of it. And then there’s the whole political side of things to think through – which I might come back to in a day or two.