It’s now official: the American military is no longer a combat force inside Iraq.
To the United States, this is an historic achievement in its own right. It was only three years ago when hundreds of American soldiers were dying in Iraq every month. It was only three years ago when an all time high of 150,000 GIs were patrolling all across the country, with 20,000 more solidified in the worst neighborhoods of Baghdad. Few Americans could have predicted that the United States would be essentially out of the conflict years down the road. But this is what has happened. Conditions on the ground improved just enough for the Americans to hand over security responsibilities to the Iraqi Security Forces. Granted, violence in Iraq is still abound, but American troops were no longer taking the lead.
In a display that was as much political as it was ceremonial, the last Stryker Brigade crossed the southern Iraqi desert into Kuwait, demonstrating to the world that the United States was no longer engaging in “combat operations.” For President Barack Obama, this moment gave him a boost just before his party starts campaigning for the midterm elections in November. And for the administration, it fulfills a promise to end America’s intervention in Iraq after seven long and bloody years.
The only problem is that the American intervention hasn’t really stopped. The remaining 50,000 troops will remain in the country for another year. And combat operations haven’t necessarily ceased either. While Washington trumpets the transition from a combat to advisory role, US Special Operations Forces will still be working with Iraqis in counterterrorism operations well into the foreseeable future. Troops will still be susceptible to risk when patrolling with Iraqi divisions.
Iraq isn’t a peaceful country, no matter how much progress the Iraqis have made and how degraded Al Qaeda in Iraq may be from its heyday in 2006. Bombs continue to go off in the capital, and Sunnis associated with Al Qaeda are still more than willing to strap explosives to their body. If you need an example, just look at last week’s attacks across thirteen Iraqi cities, in which fifty Iraqis died (mostly police officers) in a spate of car bombs, suicide attacks, roadside bombs, and small arms fire. Insurgents are still clearly able to coordinate with deadly effect, striking paralysis in the ranks of Iraqi forces virtually everywhere in the country.
And close to six months after the last parliamentary elections, Iraq’s political leaders are still squabbling among themselves over who has the right to form the next government. All the while, Iraqi civilians are becoming increasingly frustrated with the lack of public services.
Americans have a right to be cheerful that the war in Iraq is drawing to a close. But the administration should be careful about gloating too much, or embarking on its own “mission accomplished” tour. In many ways, Iraq is still up in the air.
In addition, we should not be coming to the conclusion that American influence in Iraq is over for good. As the military engagement winds down, the American diplomatic presence inside the country will most likely intensify. A new diplomatic team has already arrived in Baghdad, with US Ambassador James Jeffrey picking up where his predecessor Christopher Hill left off. The diplomats need to get right to work, with the first order of business being the establishment of an inclusive Iraqi government.
And let’s not forget that the Iraqis still don’t have an air force, nor have Iraqi soldiers been trained in conventional conflict against an outside threat. The United States will still be defending Iraq’s air space for many years to come.
“Mission accomplished?” Not yet. The American-Iraqi security partnership will continue, and it would be to no one’s surprise if Washington negotiated a brand new defense back with Iraqis to ensure that America’s hard work over the last seven years is sustained. American troop levels may be at its lowest since the start of the war. But there are still actors inside Iraq who are wishing to make that country a weak and destabilizing nation — outside and inside actors alike.