February 27, 2009 – America’s new president has been promising to find a way to get soldiers out of Iraq and to end the war “responsibly”. On Friday February 27th Barack Obama announced more details of how and when this is supposed to happen. His election pledge, suggesting a 16-month withdrawal timetable, has slipped slightly to 18 months. Only two combat brigades (out of 14 now in the country) will leave Iraq before this year’s parliamentary election in December. And in the long term, some 50,000 combat soldiers (some 142,000 troops are in Iraq at the moment), may stay, re-hatted as counter-terrorism or training forces
All this points to a pragmatic approach to withdrawal. Mr Obama has long qualified his promises to leave Iraq, conceding that soldiers may either be forced to stay (for example to fight against terrorists) or to return to prevent any incipient genocide. Any who voted for him believing that every American soldier would be gone within a couple of years might now grumble that the reductions are not large enough. But Mr Obama must deal with the reality that withdrawal is neither easy or risk-free.
Getting one combat brigade out of the country each month is seen by many as the fastest reasonable pace. Huge logistical problems are involved in such big movements, with columns of troops and materiel vulnerable to attack.
Much also depends on the political situation, which has only slowly improved as the security conditions have become slightly less bad. The “surge” of troops in 2007, combined with the “Sunni awakening” in which tribal leaders switched to the American side (in return for guns and money), have produced a lasting fall in violence. Provincial elections held at the end of January point to a strengthening of forces that want to keep Iraq broadly whole. Sectarian Shia forces and those Kurds who sought near-full autonomy did less well than had been expected in the poll. Sunni participation rose sharply compared with the previous round of elections. And the party at the centre of the ruling coalition led by Nuri al-Maliki, the prime minister, was a rebranded nationalist one, rather than a sectarian, Shia party.
Big political issues remain unsolved. The Shia parties that rival Mr Maliki’s, such as the Iranian-backed Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, and the parties (and militias) that belong to Muqtada al-Sadr, a firebrand cleric, are unlikely to accept being peacefully consigned to the democratic sidelines. The broader Sunni-Shia war has subsided, but it has not disappeared. And Arab-Kurdish disputes, especially over Kirkuk and its oil, persist. Relations between the Kurdish regional president, Masoud Barzani, and Mr Maliki are tense, as Mr Maliki’s moves to extend national control over the Kurdish regions. Any referendum over Kirkuk’s status may be at least as dangerous as national parliamentary elections.
Mr Obama may have been swayed by his commanders in Iraq and by his secretary of defence, Bob Gates, who oversaw the surge under George Bush. He has drawn sharp comments from critics on various sides. John Boehner, the Republican leader in the House of Representatives (and one of the most prominent figures in the party these days) has suggested that the promise to withdraw quickly has not been thought through, and could be knocked off course by problems on the ground. In contrast Nancy Pelosi, the Democratic Speaker of the House, seems unhappy that 50,000 troops will probably remain in Iraq.
Mr Obama will never please everyone. But at home, the poison of the Iraq war debate seems to have been drawn. Although anti-war groups might like to see him move faster, he is broadly sticking to his campaign promises. John McCain, last year’s unsuccessful Republican candidate for president, used to accuse those who favour withdrawal from Iraq of “waving a white flag of surrender”. In contrast Mr McCain is now reported to be on board with Mr Obama’s plan. A broad consensus seems to exist that the war must end, even if it cannot end tomorrow.