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How This Ends

In 2003, then Maj. Gen. David Petraeus, commander of the 101st Airborne Division that had participated in the invasion of Iraq, had a running joke with an embedded reporter, Rick Atkinson. Slyly acknowledging the unclear aims of the inchoate occupation of Iraq, the general would turn to the reporter and muse, “Tell me how this ends.” Today at Camp Lejeune, N.C., speaking to a large group of Marines who will soon deploy to Afghanistan, President Barack Obama — an antiwar Illinois state senator at the time of the invasion — answered Petraeus. From Obama’s prepared remarks:

As a candidate for President, I made clear my support for a timeline of 16 months to carry out this drawdown, while pledging to consult closely with our military commanders upon taking office to ensure that we preserve the gains we’ve made and protect our troops. Those consultations are now complete, and I have chosen a timeline that will remove our combat brigades over the next 18 months.

Let me say this as plainly as I can: by August 31, 2010, our combat mission in Iraq will end.

The combat mission will give way to a training and advisory mission in support of the Iraqi security forces, along with “targeted counter-terrorism missions,” but that mission isn’t unconditional. Obama said the U.S. military will support its Iraqi counterparts “as long as they remain non-sectarian” — a subtle shift, but one that places pressure on the Iraqis not to allow their military as a means to a renewed sectarian struggle. What Obama elided is that U.S. soldiers who train Iraqi security forces frequently do so by participating in combat operations. The combat “mission” may end in August 2010, but the presence of U.S. troops in combat won’t. Between 30,000 and 55,000 troops will remain in Iraq for these hybrid training/combat missions.

But full withdrawal will follow within 18 months of the combat-brigades’ departure. For the first time as president, Obama attempted to resolve ambiguities about a full withdrawal along the December 2011 framework that the Iraqi government insisted upon in last year’s Status of Forces Agreement, committing himself to its mechanisms. Some on the left have wondered warily why Obama hadn’t made such a public commitment. Those worries will probably end with this line:

Under the Status of Forces Agreement with the Iraqi government, I intend to remove all U.S. troops from Iraq by the end of 2011. We will complete this transition to Iraqi responsibility, and we will bring our troops home with the honor that they have earned.

Finally, Obama also implied that the impending departure of U.S. troops will require a period of increased diplomatic activity — as he put it, “sustained diplomacy on behalf of a more peaceful and prosperous Iraq.” He (finally) announced Chris Hill as the next ambassador to Iraq, and charged Hill with serving as an “honest broker in pursuit of fair and durable agreements on issues that have divided Iraq’s leaders.” Heralding a new emphasis for the U.S. embassy to conduct non-traditional diplomacy, Obama signaled that the resettlement of Iraqi refugees and persons internally displaced by acts of sectarian cleansing would be a priority as high as traditional state-to-state relations with the Baghdad government. The refugee issue is one close to the heart of Obama’s Senate ally Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.). And the idea of tying troop departures to intense diplomatic pressure on the Iraqis was proposed last year by Colin Kahl, a former Center for a New American Security Iraq expert who now serves Obama as deputy assistant secretary of defense for the Middle East.

Finally, for those watching for a split between Obama, Petraeus and Gen. Ray Odierno, the commander of U.S. troops in Iraq, Obama signaled out both men for praise, and framed withdrawal as only being possible thanks to the hardship borne by the U.S. military:

Thanks in great measure to your service, the situation in Iraq has improved. Violence has been reduced substantially from the horrific sectarian killing of 2006 and 2007. Al Qaeda in Iraq has been dealt a serious blow by our troops and Iraq’s Security Forces, and through our partnership with Sunni Arabs. The capacity of Iraq’s Security Forces has improved, and Iraq’s leaders have taken steps toward political accommodation. The relative peace and strong participation in January’s provincial elections sent a powerful message to the world about how far Iraqis have come in pursuing their aspirations through a peaceful political process.

It’s not exactly retroactive support for the surge. But neither is it dismissive of the sacrifices made by U.S. forces in Iraq, pre- and post-surge.

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