With a focus on health care legislation, the growing federal deficit and Tiger Woods’ return to golf, the war in Iraq has been pushed from the news. From one perspective, this is positive because it means that there are fewer attacks and deaths there. But as U.S. troops begin their eighth year in Iraq, their work is far from over and questions remain about the future of American involvement in the country.
The Obama administration remains committed to removing combat troops from Iraq by Aug. 31. The recent parliamentary elections — and the relative absence of violence surrounding the voting — bolster this move.
Despite threats of violence from extremist groups, more than 60 percent of voters went to the polls, including a large number of Sunnis, a group that largely sat out the 2005 elections. The fact that more than 6,000 candidates vied for 325 seats in Parliament shows the vigor of the democratic system now in place. It also means, however, there is likely to be drawn-out wrangling — and, sadly, some violence — as the votes are tallied and coalitions formed to create a functional government. Addressing these problems should fall to the Iraqis with input from U.S. officials if sought.
“Iraq still faces innumerable challenges, and they will be evident during what will likely be a difficult process as the newly elected Council of Representatives selects the next prime minister, president and speaker of the council, and seeks agreement on other key decisions as well,” Gen. David Petraeus told members of the Senate Armed Services Committee earlier this week.
The progress made in Iraq since the March 2003 invasion and the removal of Saddam Hussein as the country’s leader is “fragile and reversible, but increasingly less so,” said the general who oversees operations in Iraq as head of the U.S. Central Command.
The turning of the tide against rising sectarian violence in 2006 and 2007 can in large part be attributed to Gen. Petraeus, who was guided by the idea that U.S. forces should work with, not against, local leaders and residents. There were 220 attacks per month in 2006; there are 20 a month this year.
At the same time, an agreement between the U.S. and Iraqi governments — signed by then-President George W. Bush — gave the Iraqis more say in what U.S. troops could do and how long they would stay in the country. It stipulated that U.S. troops leave Iraq by 2011, a deadline followed by the Obama administration.
The number of U.S. troops in Iraq has dropped from 158,000 in February 2008 to 98,000 last month. The number is on target to drop to 50,000 by the end of August when “we will also complete a change in mission that marks the transition of our forces from a combat role to one of advising and assisting Iraqi security forces,” Gen. Petraeus said.
Likewise, Iraq’s infrastructure — both physical and civil — still needs to be rebuilt. The U.S. will long have a role in assisting in this work, as it is coordinated and done by the Iraqis.
Some will still ask: Was it worth it? More than 4,300 U.S. soldiers and hundreds of thousands of Iraqis were killed and millions of Iraqis — including many of the educated middle-class now needed to rebuild the country — have been displaced. In addition, more than $1 trillion has been spent by the U.S., mostly on the military mission.
Answering that question is increasingly irrelevant as the U.S. must finish its now more limited mission in Iraq, while continuing to view the country in the proper diplomatic framework as a potential ally in the myriad of work to be down in the region.
In essence, Iraq was a costly distraction from Afghanistan, where the lack of a functional government and Taliban control made it an easy terrorist haven and recruiting center. The war in Iraq, which was begun under false pretenses, took needed personnel and money away from the more pressing Afghan conflict.
The Obama administration has rightly returned the focus to Afghanistan, where many of the problems supposedly solved by the 2001 invasion of that country have resurfaced. In Afghanistan, “the going is likely to get harder before it gets easier,” Gen. Petraeus told the Senate committee.
Keeping the focus on Afghanistan, while reducing forces in Iraq and returning responsibility for the future of that country to the Iraqis, returns the U.S. to its appropriate role as a partner, not a unilateral force, in the reshaping of the Middle East.