Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Iraq: The endgame

The Iraq war. It’s been so much a part of our lives for so long now, it’s hard to grasp the idea that it’s on the verge of being over, at least for the American forces who’ve occupied that country for almost seven and a half years. But on Monday, when President Obama announced the pending drawdown of U.S. forces set to begin in Iraq later this month, it was as much the signaled approach of the end of a (long national) nightmare as much as it was the fulfillment of a campaign pledge.

“As a candidate for president, I pledged to bring the war in Iraq to a responsible end,” the president said Monday at a convention of the Disabled American Veterans in Atlanta. “Shortly after taking office, I announced our new strategy for Iraq and for a transition to full Iraqi responsibility. And I made clear that by Aug. 31, 2010, America’s combat mission in Iraq would end. And that is exactly what we are doing, as promised and on schedule.”

The drawdown will bring the American force in Iraq to 50,000 troops by Aug. 31, most of them in support, training and police roles, with some in counterinsurgency work. That’s well down from the 144,000 forces there when he took office in January 2009.

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With about three months to go before the midterm elections that the Republicans are desperately spinning as a referendum of the Obama presidency, there’s a definite political component to Obama’s pivot toward national security concerns. He needs to show a clear and present success in one of the two wars he was saddled with.

The swift start of an exit plan from the agony of Iraq a few months before the elections is something that’ll be very difficult for the Republicans to spin. Nothing succeeds like success, and there’s no success like one that obeys your timetable.

Effectively ending the combat role in Iraq — the country it’s generally accepted we shouldn’t have invaded in the first place — restores much luster to the American brand internationally, and it gives an increasingly skeptical Democratic base some reason to give Obama something besides the stinkeye.

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As we wind down in Iraq, of course, you’d think we’d redouble efforts to extricate ourselves from Afghanistan in a similarly surgical fashion. There’s apparently little short-term hope for such thinking from the Obama White House.

Obama’s recent announcements of troop buildups in Afghanistan sent the message that the Obama administration intended to (for want of a less ironic phrase) stay the course in that war-ravaged country. Obama reinforced it again in Atlanta.

“If Afghanistan were to be engulfed by an even wider insurgency, al-Qaida and its terrorist affiliates would have even more space to plan their next attack,” he said. “And as president of the United States, I refuse to let that happen.”

The New York Times reported Monday that the White House (no doubt anticipating blowback for the strategy of standing pat in Afghanistan) released a fact sheet that determined that, even with the recent surge of troops in Afghanistan, the Iraq drawdown would put the total number of U.S. forces in both countries at 146,000 by Aug. 31, down from 177,000 in January 2009.

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But a wholesale reduction of forces in Iraq, welcome as it is, calls for that next logical step, a similar White House reaction to the war in Afghanistan, which the American people (and the Democratic base he needs now and in 2012) have condemned as nothing less than a exponentially expensive catastrophe of blood, treasure and well-being.

Nine years along, the United States military realizes it will not superimpose the operational dynamics of the conflict in Iraq onto the treacherously unique theater of Afghanistan, no matter how hard it tries. The Obama administration has inherited more than a war in Afghanistan; it’s also inherited the need for a military pragmatism that utterly eluded his predecessor in the Oval Office. Note to Team Obama: It’s time to be as practical about the war you’re committed to as the war you’re about to end.

The president seemed to hint at this in Atlanta. “It’s important that the American people know that we are making progress,” he said, “and we are focused on goals that are clear and achievable.”

With a laughably small number of al-Qaida operatives in Afghanistan — The New York Times cites U.S. intelligence estimates of about 100 [that wouldn’t fill three rows at the DAV convention Obama spoke at!] — one of the more clear and achievable goals should be to match our military presence to the size of the threat. If there’s room in the administration’s thinking for that idea between now and 2012, we can look forward to an endgame better than the one that’s getting us out of Iraq: the one that gets us out of Afghanistan.

Image credits: 101st Airborne helicopters in Iraq, 2003: Sgt. Luis Lazzara, U.S. Army (public domain). Saddam statue pulldown, 2003: public domain.

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