After 18 years, the U.S. combat mission in Iraq will come to an end, President Biden and Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi will announce Monday, pursuant to an agreement that includes a specific timeline.
This is excellent news, long overdue. The war in Iraq began under false pretenses and was never necessary for U.S. security. Our long occupation has exacted an obscene cost, and U.S.-orchestrated regime change has significantly been a source of chaos — al Qaeda in Iraq, for example, did not organize until after our 2003 invasion, and Iraq's ancient church will likely never recover from the persecution unleashed by the post-ouster power vacuum and the rise of the Islamic State. Moreover, the Iraqi government has been consistently requesting our departure for more than a year.
But the question remains whether this is truly a departure. Is Biden actually ending U.S. wars or simply downsizing them?
Consider what's happened with the last two wars Biden "ended." Yes, most U.S. troops will leave Afghanistan by the end of this summer. But, as I wrote in May, airstrikes will continue; there will still be a large presence of "clandestine Special Operations forces, Pentagon contractors, and covert intelligence operatives;" and many of the troops who leave will move just across the border to a neighboring state or Navy vessel so they can continue doing their same work but with a longer commute.
Likewise, in Yemen, Biden said he ended U.S. support for "offensive operations" of the Saudi-led coalition intervention. But his administration has yet to explain what that means and even whether it will stop enabling the Saudi blockade that has Yemen in catastrophic, near-famine conditions. A letter from congressional Democrats asking for details was met with a belated, largely useless reply from Biden's team.
So what about Iraq? As recently as April, Marine Gen. Frank McKenzie, commander of U.S. Central Command, was saying there were no plans to leave Iraq. The language of Monday's announcement, which speaks of ending the "combat mission" rather than full withdrawal, suggests that's still true.
There will still be U.S. forces in Iraq, almost certainly in harm's way, leaving the real possibility of re-escalation when they inevitably come under attack. If not fully ended, the war in Iraq could easily ramp back up — as indeed it did after 2011, when then-President Barack Obama and then-Vice President Joe Biden "brought an end to the combat mission in Iraq."