What will happen when U.S. combat troops withdraw?
So, is all hell about to break loose in Iraq?
By June 30, all U.S. combat troops are scheduled—in fact, they're required—to be withdrawn from all of Iraq's cities, towns, and villages.
Many Americans and Iraqis fear that the progress achieved in the last couple of years—the dramatic reduction of violence and casualties, the growing sense of security in areas that were once soaking with dread and bloodshed—will be eroded and reversed, perhaps completely.
The rise in spectacular suicide bombings in the last few weeks—as U.S. soldiers have stepped up their retreat to large bases in the outskirts—is widely seen as the shape of things to come.
However, three things are worth noting:
First, the withdrawal is not the doing of President Barack Obama. Rather, it was negotiated during the Bush administration, at—more to the point—the Iraqi government's insistence. The Iraqis are the ones who wanted, and ordered, us out. Even if John McCain had won the 2008 election, we'd still be pulling out of Iraq's cities by next week.
Second, due to a deliberate finessing in the language of this negotiated withdrawal, a fair number of U.S. troops (nobody is saying how many, but almost certainly several thousand) will remain in the cities. These troops—which are "support troops," not "combat troops"—will be advising and assisting Iraqi soldiers, providing intelligence and logistics, providing air support (i.e., bombing and strafing from jet planes and helicopters), and, as is standard procedure, protecting those troops who are performing all these tasks. There will, in other words, be opportunities for U.S. troops to kill and die.
Still, these troops will no longer be engaged in direct, deliberate combat or in actively protecting the population on the ground. Their missions will be more supportive, their presence will have a much lower profile. If Iraqi factions and militias end up clashing in civil war, as they very nearly (or, some would say, actually) did in 2006, there is little that the U.S. military could do to stop it.
Third, the violence, at least so far, has not escalated to the degree that some news reports suggest. It has jumped substantially since January and February of this year, when shootings and suicide bombings receded to their lowest levels since the war began six years ago. However, the rising incidence of deadly attacks in May and June—the subject of all the alarm—represents merely a return to the levels seen in the last three months of 2008, which were hailed at the time as the most peaceful quarter in Iraq since the insurgency got under way in early 2004. In fact, of course, even at its calmest, "postwar" Iraq has always been, by normal standards, a hellhole. (See the data labeled "Monthly Table" here.)
Does the current spurt in violence mark a momentary crest on an undulating trend line—or the first steps toward a return to the era of extreme dread? It's too soon to tell, either way.
If the violence does continue to escalate, its causes—and perhaps consequences—appear to be quite different from those of a few years ago. According to the Washington Post's Anthony Shadid (one of the few deeply knowledgeable journalists who has stayed in Iraq as attention has drifted to Afghanistan), the current clashes are driven not so much by sectarian seething as by political power struggles.
The objective of the savage suicide bombings in the last couple of weeks, Shadid reports, is to demonstrate that Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki does not really run the country, that he's a mere stooge of the Americans, that he and his security forces cannot protect the Iraqi people on their own—and that, therefore, his regime is illegitimate and should be overthrown.
Fred Kaplan is Slate's "War Stories" columnist and author of the book, The Insurgents: David Petraeus and the Plot to Change the American Way of War. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter.
Photograph of U.S. soldier by Ahmad Al-Rubaye/AFP/Getty Images.