Some also worried at the time that American casualties would rise as the troops pulled back, because the soldiers would have fewer comrades in arms to protect them. In fact, though, U.S. fatalities have gone way down, from a total of 314 in 2008 to just 49 so far in 2011—again, by far the lowest number since the war began. (These figures are from the equally reputable private group, Iraq Coalition Casualty Count.)
The number of militant attacks is also the lowest level on record, between zero and seven per day, most of them ineffective. One U.S. official in Iraq, who at first favored keeping a few thousand troops on the ground but has now concluded they would do little good, said in a phone conversation, “The truth is, 99 percent of our troops now [in Iraq] are doing nothing.”
In short, the decline in violence that began in 2007—with the combination of the U.S. surge, the shift in U.S. strategy, the Sunni Awakening, and the Sadr cease-fire—didn’t backslide. Instead, it has continued and, in fact, accelerated.
Finally, what about the Iranians? Will they fill the vacuum left by the U.S. troops and apply stiff pressure on their fellow Shiites who dominate the Iraqi government?
This is the one complaint in the critics’ catalog that has at least some potential validity. The Iranians have long entertained ambitions of a major power in their region. A weakened and undefended Iraq on their border gives them extra room to stretch, especially if the Iraqi government isn’t innately hostile, as was Saddam Hussein’s Sunni regime. Iran and Iraq fought an eight-year war; the Iranian leaders can be expected to try to gain influence with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s Shiite-dominated regime, whether their motives are offensive, defensive, or a mixture of the two.
However, three things are worth noting. First, Iran has not stepped up its nefarious activities across the border since U.S. troops retreated from Iraqi cities two years ago. Second, reports indicate that the Iraqi Shiite leaders are not as welcoming of Iranians as the stereotypes hold, or as they in fact used to be. Nationalist suspicions and occasional hostilities have come to dominate their attitudes.
Third, the Iraqis are not going to be entirely defenseless. In the past few years, the United States has signed contracts to sell about $16 billion worth of weapons to Iraq, including F-16 jet fighters, M-1A1 battle tanks, C-130 transport jets, and helicopters armed with Hellfire air-to-ground missiles. As is routine practice among U.S. arms customers around the world, these weapons arrive with technicians, trainers, and advisers, many of them military personnel, all reporting to the U.S. Embassy’s Office of Security Cooperation. These trainers, who in Iraq’s case will probably number several hundred, cannot legally—and almost certainly will not, as a practical matter—drive or fly or shoot these weapons in actual military operations. But if Iran did do something foolish, like invade Iraq, they could, if requested, render advice and assistance to help their ally fight back.
Finally, as Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta noted during a recent visit to Bali, the U.S. military has 40,000 troops in the region, half of them on the border in Kuwait, as well as a couple of aircraft carriers within range. And, though the details haven’t been announced, or perhaps worked out, Obama and Maliki have pledged to sign some sort of security arrangement, which would probably imply letting at least the air and naval firepower flow in the event of a drastic emergency.
The withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraqi soil may spur the leaders of neighboring countries that fear Iranian expansion—Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt in particular—to form a common policy instead of basking, as they’ve done for years, in the knowledge that the Americans will take the risks and pay the costs by themselves.
In the face of all this, Republican presidential candidates, senators, and their friendly pundits should be forced to say how many troops they want to keep in Iraq—for how long, to what end, and at what cost—and how they as president would have convinced the Iraqis to let them do so. Until they do that, no one should be fooled into taking them seriously.