Pop quiz: Who brought an end to U.S. combat operations in Iraq? Those who say President Barack Obama get an "E" for effort, but the correct answer is President George W. Bush. And the Iraqi government.
Few Americans realize that U.S. military operations in Iraq have been authorized by the UN and the Iraqi government since shortly after the U.S. invasion in 2003. That's when the UN Security Council agreed to a status of forces agreement renewable at the consent of the Iraqi government every six months. The last one was to expire in 2008. President Bush could have allowed it to lapse and let his successor pick up the pieces, but he negotiated a new agreement that was signed in Baghdad on Nov. 17, 2008-after Obama was elected but before he took office. It set a timetable for U.S. withdrawal, stating, "U.S. combat forces must withdraw from cities, villages and localities by June 30, 2009" and "All U.S. forces must withdraw by Dec. 31, 2011."
Those remain the two significant deadlines, with this year's Aug. 31 deadline for withdrawal of all U.S. combat forces a tacked-on date set by Obama for political effect: It allowed him to pacify the anti-war wing of the Democratic Party and show that he was doing something tangible to end the war in an election year. The 2009 deadline proved the more important one on the ground, as the U.S. pullback from cities and towns effectively ended combat operations. As one recently returned Army officer told me, "All we've been doing the last year is supporting each other. We've not engaged Iraqis."
The looming question is whether President Obama intends to negotiate a follow-on to the current status of forces agreement, something even critics of the war effort in Iraq say is necessary.
"I worry more about total withdrawal and the expectation that the Sunnis and Shias will just get over their differences" in the absence of a U.S.-Iraq agreement, said Council on Foreign Relations fellow Stephen Biddle in a recent conference call with reporters.
Biddle went further: "I worry more about the end of 2011 than I worry about August 2010."
That's when not only are the last of the U.S. soldiers in Iraq scheduled to leave the country, but also the drawdown of forces from Afghanistan is set to begin.
Biddle, a former professor at the U.S. Army War College and author of Military Power: Explaining Victory and Defeat in Modern Battle, has long argued that turning over fighting to local forces in Iraq is risky in the face of the sort of communal fighting (Sunni vs. Shia with outside terrorists thrown in) that has characterized the Iraq war. Judging by the 2010 drop in U.S. casualties, one might assume that fighting is over. But consider: While three U.S. soldiers were killed in Iraq last month, 273 Iraqis died (90 soldiers, 183 civilians). Added to the country's political instability-it has yet to settle on a government following March elections-it looks clear that Obama's August deadline was tied to a domestic agenda, not the realities on the ground.
That's not to say that troops should remain indefinitely, but to say that our objectives should drive a timetable, not the other way around.
The president threatens to make the same mistakes in Afghanistan. And there we have a pitched battle with U.S. and Afghan forces against the Taliban, terrorists, and related insurgents. Our objective, plainly laid out by Biddle and a host of military experts, is to defeat the Taliban and al-Qaeda. If we do not, those forces are likely to take over a weak Pakistani government and its nuclear arsenal.
And the only way that's no longer our problem-in 2010 or 2011-is if the investment of thousands of lives and billions of American dollars doesn't matter. Or if the threat of nuclear terrorism is to be left in the hands of the next commander-in-chief.
Email Mindy Belz