Pete, your thoughtful take only emphasizes how foolish it would now be to withdraw precipitously from Iraq. It is of course the presence of U.S. forces in large numbers which has provided the political breathing-space for the nascent Iraqi democracy to take hold. We saw a peaceful election, the splintering of the Sunni bloc, the further marginalization of Sadr (who for all intents and purposes has ceased to be a political force), and the beginning of a transformation from purely sect-based identity politics to the type of coalitions that characterize more sophisticated democracies. But none of this is secure.
You point to a number of problematic situations — in Basra and Kirkuk, for example. But the presence of the U.S. also acts as a restraint, guiding and pushing Maliki to respect established political structures. Once thought to be too weak or a pawn of Iran, we and the Iraqi people would not benefit if Maliki misinterpreted the results as a green light to aggregate power and disregard those institutions which are only now taking hold. The necessary backdrop to all of this is civil order and protection of the population from inter- and intra-sectarian violence.
It is not clear yet what the new administration has in mind. The Obama camp is said to be working on three different withdrawal schedules. But we have reason to be concerned. Its reaction to the election was pathetically uninspiring, lacking encouragement for the troops still there or for the Iraqis’ tremendous achievement. The eagerness to depart Iraq, rather than praise it and pledge support for continued progress, was what came through loud and clear.
Maintaining U.S. troops in essentially a peace-keeping role, to prevent the return of violence and encourage all parties to continue their political reconciliation is essential. After the blood and treasure expended and the remarkable results obtained, would the Obama administration sacrifice everything for the sake of speeding up the withdrawal to a campaign-driven sixteen month deadline? It would seem foolhardy.
National elections are scheduled (but not definitively set) for the end of the year. Preserving adequate troop levels to ensure a successful execution and a peaceful aftermath should be a top priority. That could mean that troop strength levels off, wisely, at twelve rather than ten brigades in the near future.
U.S. troops, largely because of the success of the surge, have seen their mission change dramatically. This does not mean that a U.S. presence it is no longer needed or that timetables can be artificially shortened without doing real damage to our goals. Let’s hope that administration officials understand this well.