Say what you will about the U.S. withdrawal from Iraq (and as I have repeatedly argued, I think it is unwise and counterproductive), as a purely military operation, it is an impressive achievement. During the course of the last few months, the U.S. military has withdrawn 50,000 troops from a still-volatile land where plenty of enemies, on both the Shiite and Sunni sides, would like to inflict more casualties on us–and it has done so with almost no casualties.
According to icasualties.org, U.S. forces suffered four fatalities in September, four in October, two in November and none at all in December, the month when the last troops headed for Kuwait. Even that low level of casualties inevitably means heartbreak for some military families; the Washington Post has a moving article today about Specialist David Hickman, who was killed on Nov. 14 when an IED ripped into his armored truck, making him quite possibly the last U.S. serviceman killed in action in Iraq (at least for the time being). We should also keep in mind that even in peacetime, a certain number of service personnel are lost due to training accidents, illness and suicide–but by any reasonable measure the losses suffered in what could be a very dangerous operation (a withdrawal under fire) were remarkably low.
This is a tribute to the professionalism and planning and preparation U.S. military forces put into all of their operations, whether attacks or retreats. There should be a proper appreciation for their achievement, at a purely tactical level, of moving so many personnel and so much equipment–an achievement which bookends their initial success in 2003 in entering Iraq and quickly toppling Saddam Hussein’s regime.
Unfortunately, as we have learned in the intervening years, the U.S. armed forces struggle to achieve strategic and political gains commensurate with their tactical accomplishments. They actually made considerable progress in this regard since 2007 as Iraqi politics stabilized. It is a shame their hard-won achievement–which came at the cost of 4,474 lost U.S. personnel, as well as the loss of more than 100,000 Iraqi lives, not to mention perhaps a trillion dollars in American taxpayer funds–will now be undermined by the president’s decision to withdraw them prematurely.