Getting it Right in Iraq

By: Greg C. Reeson

President Obama entered office promising the American people that he would shift the country’s military focus away from a steadily improving situation in Iraq and toward Afghanistan, where violence and instability have increased each year since the United States launched its bid to oust the Taliban and al Qaeda in late 2001. Mr. Obama’s announcement February 27 of an end to the United States’ combat role in Iraq in August 2010, coupled with the recent decision to increase the number of American troops in Afghanistan by more than 15,000, makes it clear that he intends to fulfill that pledge. In its rush to get out an unpopular conflict in Iraq, though, the United States must make sure that it does not jeopardize the hard-won progress that has been made over the past 18 months.

Since the summer of 2007, there has been a substantial decline in violence in Iraq. Virtually every metric tracked by the United States military has shown marked improvement. Attacks of all types have dropped significantly, and casualty rates for U.S. troops and Iraqis are the lowest they’ve been in years. Iraqi security forces continue to grow in size and capability, al Qaeda in Iraq has been virtually destroyed, political accommodation is progressing, and the central government in Baghdad is increasingly taking control of security operations throughout the country. Former President Bush’s “surge” of American troops, a change in strategy and tactics by the U.S. military command in Baghdad, the Anbar Awakening by Sunnis fed up with al Qaeda, and the retreat of Muqtada al Sadr’s Mahdi Army combined to effect change in Iraq that has been not only positive, but sustained.

Even though significant progress has been made, there remain several reasons for Mr. Obama and his Defense Department to be cautious about withdrawing from Iraq too quickly. Ethnic and sectarian differences have not disappeared, and some Iraqi politicians are more interested in personal power than in making Iraq a stable and prosperous nation. The Kurds are increasingly nervous about the intentions of the central government in Baghdad, and many important political issues, especially those concerning Iraq’s oil resources, remain unresolved. The overall level of violence is still about as high as it was in early 2004, and Iraqi security forces, while significantly better than they were just two years ago, will be dependent upon American military support for several years to come. While it is true that the United States cannot solve all of Iraq’s problems, the need for continued American guidance and military support cannot be overstated. Withdrawal rhetoric aside, Mr. Obama appears to understand the risks associated with a precipitous American pullout from Iraq.

Details of the plan made available thus far reveal that only 2 of the 14 combat brigades currently deployed in Iraq will be removed before the next round of elections in December. That means at the end of 2009 there will still be more than 130,000 American military personnel on the ground. At that point, the United States would have to remove 12 combat brigades from Iraq in only 8 months, a task that would pose tremendous logistical challenges under the best of circumstances, much less under fire from terrorists and insurgent forces.

Even if the U.S. were to execute such an ambitious course of action, Mr. Obama would leave in place a residual force of up to 50,000 personnel to train Iraqi security forces, target foreign terrorists, and guard American assets like the U.S. Embassy. A force of 50,000, working closely with Iraqi security forces, means that some American troops would undoubtedly remain in harm’s way. In fact, some would probably continue to execute combat missions, despite the claim that no combat forces would stay in Iraq beyond August 2010. The New York Times reported as much February 25 when it cited defense officials who “…did not know how many combat troops would stay behind in new missions as trainers, advisers or counterterrorism forces, at least some of whom would still be effectively in combat roles.” The Times added, “Military planners have said that in order to meet withdrawal deadlines, they would reassign some combat troops to training and support of the Iraqis, even though the troops would still be armed and go on combat patrols with their Iraqi counterparts.” By delaying the departure of all but two combat brigades until next year, and by leaving critical combat power in place as part of a residual force, Mr. Obama is giving himself the flexibility he may need to slow or stop the withdrawal of American forces if Iraq begins to fall apart. Logistics limitations effectively eliminate the possibility of accelerating the departure of American combat forces, even if conditions on the ground continue to improve.

These emerging details could be why many Republicans have expressed support for the President’s plan, while key Democrats, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi included, have made clear that they are not satisfied with Mr. Obama’s Iraq strategy. In the end it doesn’t matter if President Obama is playing word games with the definitions of “combat,” “trainer,” and “adviser,” or if he has learned the most valuable lesson of President Bush’s surge—that you can’t fight this war on the cheap; you have to commit the resources required to win. What matters in the end, for the United States, for Iraq, for the Middle East, and for the world, is that President Obama gets Iraq right.

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