Obama Announces Iraq Withdrawal Timetable

Today President Obama set a timetable for the withdrawal of American forces from Iraq.  According to the plan, all “combat” troops will leave by August 31, 2010, although the majority of this contingent will not begin to leave until next year because of security concerns in the run up to national elections in December.  Between 35,000 and 50,000 military personnel will remain in Iraq after the main withdrawal to train Iraqi security forces, conduct counterterrorism missions and protect civilians.  All US soldiers will be out of the country by the end of 2011.

 

Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Adm. Michael Mullen support the president’s decision.  They told lawmakers that American military commanders in Iraq believe that the timetable entails only moderate risks to security there.  Democratic leaders in Congress oppose leaving tens of thousands of troops in Iraq beyond August 2010.  Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said “When they talk about 50,000, that’s a little higher number than I anticipated.”  According to the New York Times, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi was “upset” that such a large contingent would remain, saying she did not understand “the justification.”  Leading Republicans support the concept including Sen. John McCain, Obama’s opponent in the 2008 presidential election.

 

For those who want a quick withdrawal of American troops from Iraq, there are reasons to be concerned about Obama’s plan.  A major increase in the level of violence may ensue in Iraq once the US starts to withdraw brigades, and US commanders there will be able to slow the pace of the withdrawal if they feel it is necessary to deal with the instability.  The status-of-forces agreement between the US and Iraq, which was reached during the presidency of George W. Bush, could even be altered if the Iraqi government decides it wants American combat troops to stay in country beyond 2011.  According to John McHugh, the ranking Republican on the House Armed Services Committee, Obama kept the option of keeping troops in Iraq longer open when he assured the congressman that he would revisit the plan if circumstances changed.

 

Leaving behind tens of thousands of “support” troops is also problematic.  Although they will ostensibly be there to train and assist the Iraqi security forces, the remaining personnel could easily assume combat roles if the situation deteriorates, much like the military “advisers” in Vietnam did in the 1960s.  McCain suggested that American soldiers will continue to go on combat patrols with the Iraqis even after the so-called “combat” troops leave in 2010.  “They’ll still be in harm’s way,” he said.  “There’s no doubt about it.”

 

Whether this plan is final or merely tentative remains to be seen.  If the level of violence spikes after the elections or another point during the scheduled drawdown one side of the Iraq debate is going to be disappointed, because the US will either continue to withdraw and let the situation deteriorate or stop the pullout and keep a large number of American troops in country.  Hopefully there will not be a major increase in instability and the withdrawal will be completed on time.

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