The key fact about President Barack Obama's decision to end the war in Iraq—pulling out all U.S. combat brigades by August 2010 and all U.S. forces, period, by the end of 2011—is that he had little choice about the matter.
For some time now, the United States has had less and less say over the nature and direction of post-Saddam Iraq. We declared it to be a sovereign nation, at which point its leaders started acting as if it were true.
Last November, the two governments signed a Status of Forces Agreement, the standard contract by which one nation allows another to keep troops within its borders. But this accord has a special clause, Article 24, which states, in part, "All U.S. forces are to withdraw from all Iraqi territory, waters, and airspace no later than the 31st of December of 2011." No ifs, ands, or buts.
That article further states: "All U.S. combat forces are to withdraw from Iraqi cities, villages, and towns … no later than 30 June 2009."
The treaty doesn't define "combat forces," so there's some wiggle room here. President Obama appears to interpret the phrase to mean combat brigades. In his speech today at Camp Lejeune, N.C., he said that all combat brigades would be withdrawn by August 2010. Still, it's not out of the question that U.S. combat troops (and, by the way, just what are "noncombat troops"?) might continue to patrol in smaller configurations than brigades even after that deadline has passed. The Iraqis' intent is clear: They want us assuming a much lower profile by this summer, a year before the deadline that even Obama has set.
As for the Democratic lawmakers and anti-war activists who criticize the president for wanting to keep 35,000 to 50,000 troops in Iraq even after that August 2010 deadline, he made it clear in his speech that those troops are strictly transitional; they'll all be gone by the end of 2011—and would be, even if he preferred otherwise—because the SOFA requires them to be gone.
Before President Obama announced his timetable, there were debates within the administration over how rapidly the pullout should flow. During the election campaign, Obama had said he'd withdraw all combat troops within 16 months of taking office. Since then, some military officers have argued for stretching this schedule to 23 months. The president's final timetable, which amounts to 19 months (measured from Inauguration Day), appears to be a difference-splitter.
In a teleconference with reporters after the speech, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates explained that Gen. Raymond Odierno, commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, had advocated keeping combat troops for a long enough time to provide security during, and a little after, Iraq's upcoming elections; Obama's original 16-month plan, he argued, wouldn't cover the full span. The president compromised.
Obama said in his speech that between August 2010 and December 2011, the remaining 35,000-50,000 troops—a major reduction from the 142,000 troops in Iraq now—will have three missions: training, advising, and equipping the Iraqi forces (as long as they don't slip into sectarian conflicts); protecting U.S. civilian and military personnel still in-country; and engaging in counterterrorist operations.
It's not entirely clear what this last task entails. Many officers believe that the best way for troops to fight terrorists is through counterinsurgency techniques—living among the local people, earning their trust, and thus gathering intelligence on who the terrorists are and where they're hiding. This is what most U.S. combat brigades have been doing in Iraq since the "surge" began—and, more to the point, since Gen. David Petraeus started applying his counterinsurgency strategy—in early 2007. The withdrawal of combat brigades presumably means the end of this strategy. Or does it? Will combat units smaller than brigades continue the strategy in certain areas? Or will counterterrorism consist simply of bombing and strafing jihadists if and when they're encountered? The details haven't been spelled out.
The president's vision of post-withdrawal Iraq is also a little hazy. In his speech, he talked about continuing to assist Iraq economically, coordinating regional diplomatic efforts to sustain its stability, and serving as an "honest broker" to help settle internal disputes. All this sounds good, and maybe it will be good; I hope so. But it's conceivable that some of Iraq's neighbors want to keep the place a little off-balance, the better to cultivate their own influence. And it's unclear what leverage we would have as an honest broker without any troops on the ground.
There is a still-larger uncertainty along these lines—whether President Obama has an explicit "Plan B." If August 2010 rolls around and Gen. Odierno tells him that some crucial area of Iraq is falling apart and major violence will erupt if the last U.S. combat brigade pulls out, would Obama be inclined to stretch his timetable or even send back some troops whom he'd withdrawn earlier? Gates was asked at his press conference whether the president had discussed this possibility. He replied that the question was "hypothetical" (which it wasn't) and that, in any case, his decision took those risks into account (which sidesteps the possibility that the calculations of risk turn out to be wrong). It's a question that might be worth asking again in one forum or another.
If all hell breaks loose, is it possible to revise the SOFA to let U.S. troops remain? Strictly speaking, no. Article 30 states that either party can notify the other that it's terminating the agreement—but it also notes that the termination wouldn't take effect until one year after the notice (by which time the full withdrawal might be mandatory). The Iraqi parliament could theoretically draft a new SOFA, but the one in place now took many months to compose, and if the country is falling apart—the premise of this scenario—it's unlikely that the factions would agree on a revision or on wanting U.S. troops to stay in any case.
The bottom line is probably this: President Obama simply wants to get out of Iraq. So does 69 percent of the U.S. population (as do, judging from the applause that greeted his announcement, many of the Marines who have fought there in multiple tours). His budget plans depend on a drastic winding down of this war. So does his broader legislative agenda. And if he wants to send substantially more troops to Afghanistan—a decision he hasn't yet made—none are available unless he takes some out of Iraq.
To some extent, his calculations ride on hope. It's hard to imagine that any American wouldn't hope that, in this case, he's right. But, as has been true throughout this war, the Iraqis have a say in this, too. What Iraq is like in 18 months, or three years, will depend above all on the Iraqis.