Feature

The end of U.S. combat in Iraq

More than seven years after the invasion of Iraq, the last U.S. combat unit withdrew from the country this week.

What happened
More than seven years after a night of “shock and awe” launched the invasion of Iraq, the last U.S. combat unit withdrew from the country this week. Operation Iraqi Freedom is over, the Pentagon said, and Operation New Dawn has begun. From a peak of 165,000 troops at the height of the 2007 surge, the U.S. presence now stands at some 50,000 support troops, tasked with training and advising Iraqi forces until the planned July 2011 pullout of all remaining U.S. forces. In a low-key statement, President Obama called the pullout “a milestone in the Iraq war” that fulfilled a campaign promise, but carefully avoided declaring victory. Meanwhile, insurgent attacks continued, with dozens of Iraqis killed this week in a wave of car bombings and suicide attacks apparently designed to undermine confidence in the Iraqi government.

In the course of the war, more than 4,400 American troops died in combat, and tens of thousands were maimed or otherwise wounded. The Iraqi death toll is uncertain, but most estimates say that at least 100,000 civilians and tens of thousands of soldiers and militants were killed. So far, the cost to U.S. taxpayers is about $750 billion, which is 15 times higher than the Bush administration’s initial $50 billion estimate.

What the editorials said
What an appallingly high price “in blood and treasure” to pay for a war of choice, said the Los Angeles Times. The Bush administration pushed the nation into invading Iraq “on false pretenses,” by claiming that Saddam Hussein had stockpiled weapons of mass destruction he might share with al Qaida. The result of the radical policy of “pre-emptive war” has been tragic for both countries. America’s “moral authority” was badly damaged by its false premise for invasion, its botched and bloody occupation, and revelations of torture at Abu Ghraib prison. Iraqis are rid of the tyrant Saddam, but at the price of sectarian violence, daily bombings, and a dysfunctional government that cannot even provide electricity. Was it worth it? No.

And it’s not over yet, said the San Francisco Chronicle. In a sign that Iraq’s future is “less rosy” than the Obama administration suggests, the State Department is building its own “new army” in Iraq. It is staffing two new, $100 million diplomatic outposts and more than doubling its private security force, to 7,000. “Swapping Pentagon uniforms” for private guardsmen is not ideal, said the Chicago Sun-Times. Remember how much trouble rogue Blackwater security guards caused, killing scores of civilians and enraging Iraqis? But at this point, it’s probably our best option. It was “time to bring this war to a close.”

What the columnists said
But if Iraq dissolves into civil war, said Kevin Zeese in The Huffington Post, the U.S. will be going back in. The remaining 50,000 troops will resume combat roles if conditions warrant, U.S. officials concede, and if sectarian strife explodes, even more troops could be sent in. Given that half of all nations emerging from civil war relapse into conflict within five years, that’s hardly unlikely. 

A civil war is in no way inevitable, said Kenneth M. Pollack in The Washington Post. After President Bush ordered the “surge” of additional troops, the insurgency withered, al Qaida terrorists were decimated and “marginalized,” and violence substantially declined. The Iraqi political structure, though still “deadlocked and deeply dysfunctional,” is now fundamentally democratic. Iraq could well be “muddling on toward real peace, pluralism, and even prosperity.”

But not if the Obama administration turns its back on Iraq, said Rich Lowry in National Review Online. To evolve into a peaceful democracy, Iraq will need U.S. “boots on the ground” beyond Obama’s arbitrary 2011 pullout date, as well as continued U.S. financial support. But Obama still sees Iraq as “Bush’s war,” and the Democratic-led Congress has already halved funding for the Iraqi army from $2 billion to $1 billion. Unless we remain thoroughly committed not only to diplomacy but also to military security, “Iraq could still become Obama’s South Vietnam”—an ally we save through heroic effort, but then abandon to chaos.

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