Over seven years after U.S. combat forces entered Iraq, the 4th Stryker Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division – the last brigade combat team – left the country after it crossed into Kuwait early Thursday morning, local time. While much has been made of their departure, the move does not signify the end the deployment of all U.S. combat forces in Iraq. About 56,000 troops remain in Iraq, 6,000 of which are expected to leave by August 31 in order to meet President Barack Obama’s deadline for ending U.S. combat operations in Iraq by September 1.
On that day in September, Operation Iraqi Freedom will officially come to an end and Operation New Dawn will begin, in which the remaining U.S. forces will switch to an advise-and-assist role. They are expected to remain in that role until the end of 2011, when all U.S. troops are to be sent home.
U.S. Army soldiers run toward the border from Iraq into Kuwait on Wednesday.
Unfortunately, however, along with the excitement of ending the combat mission in Iraq, a high level of fear lingers in the air as the country starts to slip backward on both political and security fronts. Indeed, nearly six months after inconclusive elections, Iraq remains without a new government. Despite negotiations, Iraq’s major political alliances cannot agree on what a new coalition government would look like and how power should be shared.
Moreover, violent attacks and assassinations are on the rise. Just two days ago, 61 people were killed and more than 140 injured in one of the worst suicide bomb attacks in years outside an army recruiting center in Baghdad.
Lt. Gen Babakir Zebari, Iraq’s top army officer, expressed his concerns last week. “At this point, the withdrawal is going well, because they [American troops] are still here,” Zebari said. “But the problem will start after 2011 – the politicians must find other ways to fill the void after 2011. If I were asked about the withdrawal, I would say to politicians: the U.S. army must stay until the Iraqi army is fully ready in 2020.“
Zebari has hit the nail on the head. Unless the Iraqi army is fully functional by the end of 2011, the U.S. troops’ complete withdrawal will create a security vacuum in Iraq that players such as al-Qaeda and Iran-backed militants will be all too eager to fill. Indeed, the American people have sacrificed too much to the war effort in terms of both money and lives to allow Iraq to slip into the hands of al-Qaeda insurgents. While a September 1 deadline to end American combat operations and a 2011 deadline to end all U.S. troop involvement in Iraq is a good political sound-bite, it may be detrimental to American national security in the long run. When it comes to war, the only thing that should determine its end is the reality on the ground.