Tomorrow will be an important date in the history of America's involvement in Iraq. Because it is the first milestone on the timeline for withdrawal that Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki wrested from George W. Bush late last year. Which means, barring unforeseen circumstances (always a possibility in a war zone), tomorrow will mark the beginning of the end of America's military presence in Iraq.
What will happen tomorrow (and by some media reports, has already occurred) is that the American forces will completely pull out of Iraqi cities and withdraw to bases outside of the towns. Iraqis are already celebrating this withdrawal, and tomorrow has been declared "National Sovereignty Day" to mark the occasion in Iraq.
What this will ultimately mean depends on a number of important factors, none of which can be accurately predicted at this point. Looking back on this date in the future, it may be seen as overdue, timely, or rashly premature. Will the violence spike as a result? Will American troops begin returning home rapidly, or slowly? Will Maliki's government be able to stand on its own? Will the Iraq military be up to the job of providing security? Will the huge political questions the Iraqis have (successfully, so far) postponed finally be addressed in one way or another? About the only concrete analysis which can be made at this point is that there are more questions right now than answers.
From Article 24 of the actual Status Of Forces Agreement (SOFA) Bush and Maliki signed (I wrote about the SOFA in more detail when it was announced, where you can find a link to download a PDF copy of it, if further interested):
2. All United States combat forces shall withdraw from Iraqi cities, villages, and localities no later than the time at which Iraqi Security Forces assume full responsibility for security in an Iraqi province, provided that such withdrawal is completed no later than June 30, 2009.
3. United States combat forces withdrawn pursuant to paragraph 2 above shall be stationed in the agreed facilities and areas outside cities, villages, and localities... before the date established in paragraph 2 above.
So now that we find ourselves at this first milestone, what is the current situation in Iraq?
The "surge" has largely wound down, which leaves us with roughly 130,000 American troops in Iraq (and an uncountable number of support contractors as well, it should be mentioned). Violence on the streets of Iraq has shown a disturbing rise in the past few weeks, as well as an overall trend in the past few months which I pointed out the last time I wrote about Iraq. In the past two weeks, this has gotten much worse, with large vehicle bombs killing dozens on the streets. But so far, even with this uptick, the violence is nowhere near as bad as it was a few years ago when a sectarian civil war was raging in the streets. Iraqi national elections are scheduled for late in the year, which raises worries about a spike in violence then as well.
Because of this, I heard an astonishing thing in a news broadcast this weekend. I don't remember if it was the journalist or the politician being interviewed, but they blithely stated that the American troop presence would stay at the current level of 130,000 for another year, before we start actually withdrawing them. Others are saying no troop reductions will occur before the end of the year, just in case violence gets out of control around the elections.
This does not sound like bringing one or two brigades home per month, I have to say. In fact, it doesn't even sound like the word "withdrawal" can be used, other than in the context of American forces "withdrawing" back to their Forward Operating Bases out in the desert.
So when will the actual withdrawal begin? Are we really going to keep the exact same troop level in Iraq for another full year before any of them start coming home? While tomorrow's date will undoubtedly be mentioned in the American news, will the followup questions be asked? Or will the answer from the Obama White House basically be "we're going to wait and see"?
If our soldiers are out of Iraqi cities, and the Iraqi security forces start shouldering more and more responsibility as a result, do we really need all 130,000 troops sitting in their bases, just in case things get a lot worse? Even if things in Iraq do get markedly worse, are we going to send them back into the cities in response, or are we going to sit back and see how the Iraqis handle it?
At some point, America is going to have to say "you're on your own" to Iraq, no matter what happens in the wake of our exit. This day will come, sooner or later. But it's hard to see why we need to remain at full troop strength for an entire year while we wait to see what does happen. Because, even during their election seasons, at some point it is going to be Iraq's problem and not ours.
I would like to see President Obama at least address this issue, even if the press doesn't bring it up (the media largely views Iraq as "boring" and "no longer news," as evidenced by Obama's last press conference -- when neither of America's wars were even brought up by the media). I would like to hear at least some vague outlines of a withdrawal plan at this point, and not just "well, we're going to pretty much stay exactly as we are for the next year." Obama needs to stand up and say something to the tune of: "After consulting with the military, if the security situation on the ground permits, we will tentatively be reducing our forces in Iraq by 20,000 - 30,000 troops by the end of this year, and reducing that number by another 20,000 - 30,000 troops next year as well. At that time, we will draw up our final withdrawal plans to bring all American troops home from Iraq."
Because, while the pullout from Iraq's cities is indeed the beginning of the end of America's involvement in Iraq, we need to know what the next step is going to be. And keeping 130,000 troops there for another full year doesn't exactly sound like the beginning of an orderly withdrawal to me.
Chris Weigant blogs at: ChrisWeigant.com