President Obama’s planned drawdown to 50,000 U.S. troops by the end of August is a prudent course of action. The fact that these troops have been redesignated “advise and assist” brigades rather than traditional combat units matters little; they still carry enormous firepower, and that firepower makes them useful.
American troops already left Iraq’s cities last June. They have been replaced for most tasks by a 700,000-strong Iraqi security force and are no longer needed in large numbers. On balance, even though July was somewhat bloodier than previous months this year, the general security situation in Iraq continues to improve slowly (or is at least semi-stable).
In addition, the declaration that our mission is changing from a military combat operation to a non-combat civilian-led operation is largely semantic; in fact, the transition has been gradual (made possible largely because of the success of the surge strategy carried out by General Petraeus in 2007 and 2008).
Still, the war is not over and it would be a mistake to call Iraq anything more than a provisional success at present. Iraqis have made remarkable progress — on the battlefield with their army and police and, despite the ugliness of the process, with their politics. But they are not out of the woods.
There are important unresolved territorial disputes, particularly among Arabs, Turkomen, and Kurds in the north. There is clearly violence and a residual, unrelenting extremist presence. The Sunni-run Sons of Iraq are generally not yet integrated into the Iraqi government and economy — and as such, they could still be a harmful force. The economy and basic infrastructure, like the electricity grid, is still mediocre. And of course, there is a lame duck government in place as the Iraqis struggle to form a new government.
These challenges aren’t going away soon. Going down to zero U.S. military units by the end of next year, as currently envisioned, is too absolute and too fast. The calming, confidence-building role they play remains important and will probably stay that way.
For example, they can accompany Iraqi army and Kurdish peshmerga forces on joint patrols in the contested north, and they can help man checkpoints in that area as well. There is little reason to expect such roles to become unnecessary anytime soon.
But the plan to leave next year was negotiated by Iraq and the Bush administration, and is now codified in a formal bilateral understanding. It cannot just be discarded. It must be formally renegotiated and revised. And only a new Iraqi government will have the legitimacy to do that.
So we have to wait while the Iraqis find a way to end their political stalemate — even if that means Mr. Obama and Mr. Biden may need to increase their role in coming months. The president is not done with the hard work needed on this project just yet.