There has been a lot of media attention given lately to the military, our troops, and our war strategy. Almost without exception, this attention has focused on Afghanistan. Of course, there's a good reason for this, since President Obama just removed the commanding general from Afghanistan and replaced him. And the Senate just confirmed General David Petraeus to take over the American war effort there. But with all of this attention -- especially the attention of Republican senators on Obama's "timetable for withdrawal" of the current Afghanistan "surge" effort next July, what is noticeable by its absence is any discussion of how our timetable for withdrawal is going in Iraq. In all the media discussion of Afghanistan, there has been virtually no mention of what's happening currently in Iraq.
A quick review, to begin. When Obama took office, we had over 140,000 troops on the ground in Iraq. This number has steadily fallen, until a few weeks ago when the troop levels were in the news because the number of troops in Afghanistan -- for the first time since both wars began -- had surpassed the number of troops in Iraq. At that point, there were around 90,000 troops still in Iraq.
Today, a Department of Defense spokesman, when asked how many troops remained in Iraq, responded: "We are on track to drawdown U.S. forces in Iraq from approx 82,000 (where we are today) to just under 50,000 by the first of September." In response to the bigger question of how the withdrawal is proceeding, the spokesman answered: "In the coming weeks, we will see the drawdown accelerate, providing the security situation remains stable. By December 31, 2011, all U.S. forces will be out of Iraq."
This is, obviously, good news. And perhaps, with the holiday weekend in front of us, the news media will begin to cover the story of our brave men and women returning from overseas in large numbers. But so far, they've been missing this story.
The American troop withdrawal from Iraq was one of the most hotly debated subjects on the campaign trail in 2008. Republicans, led by their presidential nominee John McCain, were outraged that any timetable for withdrawal was even being discussed. They used some pretty scary language to describe what would happen if Obama won and instituted a "precipitous withdrawal." Obama was, at the time, saying we could likely withdraw a "brigade a month" starting when he took office, and other Democrats wanted an even faster withdrawal. None of this came to pass, but the astonishing thing is that now -- when the withdrawal has actually gotten under way and is about to accelerate -- so little attention is being paid by the media and the public. Who would have thought, watching the candidates spar back then that the Iraq withdrawal would happen and America's response would be "ho, hum..."?
Our actual "timetable for withdrawal" in Iraq was set in stone by none other than President George W. Bush, right before he left office. Less than two months before Obama's inauguration, Bush signed a "Status Of Forces Agreement" (SOFA) with the Iraqi government. This document covers all the legalities of American forces in Iraq, and it charts the end of American involvement in the country with very specific milestones. The first of these was met last summer, when American forces withdrew from Iraqi cities, and handed over control of many operations to the Iraqi government and the Iraqi military. The final milestone will be reached at the end of 2011, when all American troops are slated to be gone from Iraq for good.
The upcoming milestone of reducing American forces to 50,000 troops is not explicitly spelled out in the SOFA, but rather was imposed by President Obama when, shortly after taking office, he announced his plans for withdrawing from Iraq. He backtracked on his initial "one brigade a month" idea, and delayed beginning the accelerated withdrawal until after the Iraqis held national elections. Instead, Obama committed to the end of August of this year as a milestone date for the 50,000 troop level.
Two months out, we are 32,000 troops away from achieving this goal, and the Pentagon seems fully confident that they can reach it. Moving that many troops out in two months will be a challenge (the logistics alone are daunting), but the official word is that we're on track to meet this challenge.
What's amazing is how uncontroversial the entire operation has been. At the same time that Senate Republicans are voicing loud disagreement over any such withdrawal timetables when it comes to Afghanistan, we are about to meet a big milestone in our withdrawal timetable for Iraq -- and it doesn't even rate a mention.
Obama, the pundits say, is trying to "have it both ways" on his position on the Afghanistan withdrawal (slated for July of next year). He is trying to placate critics on the right by saying "we're not going to turn out the lights and disappear overnight" -- in other words, answering the same "precipitous withdrawal" criticism leveled at him during the campaign over the Iraq withdrawal. But, at the same time, Vice President Joe Biden is out there reassuring the left that Obama is not going to just pull ten soldiers out of Afghanistan and say "see, we've started the withdrawal," and is privately telling folks that a goodly number of troops will indeed be coming home on this schedule. Hence the "having it both ways" critique.
What is surprising is that neither side brings up the Iraq withdrawal in their arguments. Because it could be spun both ways. The right could complain that Obama does take these deadlines seriously, and that when he says he's going to start a withdrawal next summer, that's exactly what we should all believe he's going to do. The left, on the other hand, could say that Obama's already broken one promise on how he will withdraw troops (the "one brigade a month" idea) and delayed the beginning of the withdrawal almost a full year, so why should we trust him on Afghanistan?
As I said, either case can be made with some validity. I leave it for others to make these cases, though, because while discussing the political ramifications of withdrawing troops in either country is interesting, as we approach the celebration of the birth of our country I'd prefer to see the positive side of the troop withdrawal from Iraq.
Our brave men and women in uniform are coming home from Iraq, by the thousands. Perhaps they could have come home earlier, but perhaps they could have come home later, as well. What is indisputable is that they are coming home, and that the 50,000 who will remain in Iraq after the end of August will also be coming home -- in less than 18 months.
So while I go out and celebrate my patriotism this weekend, my thoughts will be with the soldiers returning home safely to their loved ones, as we wind at least one of our wars down. And with the ones who didn't make it home, and with the ones who haven't made it home yet. But no matter how you feel about America's involvement in Iraq or Afghanistan, I think everyone can agree that seeing soldiers coming home is good news indeed.
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