A major milestone happened in Iraq recently, but nobody paid it much attention. It's understandable, since there is a lot currently going on to distract both the media and the public, from the Winter Olympics to the Washington health reform "summit" later this week. Even on military matters, the headlines this week will likely be about different subjects, from the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy hearings on Capitol Hill to the progress of a new offensive in Afghanistan. But that doesn't mean we shouldn't also be talking about Iraq. Because, for the first time since the war began, there are fewer than 100,000 American troops in Iraq.
Now, there's not much difference militarily between having, say, 102,000 soldiers on the ground and 99,000. But psychologically, it is more important than just using five figures to write the number instead of six. Because it shows that America's withdrawal from Iraq is proceeding as planned -- whether the media notices it or not.
From the current troop level of 96,000, America will gradually withdraw soldiers to reach the real deadline of having only 50,000 left at the end of this August. These 50,000 will then be on schedule to leave before the end of 2011. Meaning the end of the Iraq occupation is almost in sight.
The next milestone for the Iraqis themselves is their national elections, which will be held the first week in March (after being delayed by a couple of months -- they were supposed to have happened in January). How this election happens, and its aftermath, will be critical in keeping to America's withdrawal schedule. For instance, General Ray Odierno just said he has drawn up contingency plans to deal with a swell in election-related violence, which may cause the August target to slip on the withdrawal schedule.
The election itself is already having a few problems. Hundreds of candidates -- mostly Sunni -- have been barred from running for office. The stated reason is that they have past ties to Saddam Hussein's Ba'ath party, but to an outside observer there is a certain whiff of stacking the deck before the election is even held, especially since not only Sunnis but also non-sectarian party candidates have been tossed off the ballot. Iran's influence in these actions is darkly intimated, and one of the two main Sunni parties (whose main candidate was barred) is already calling for a boycott of the election. No word yet from the Kurds, which is odd because they were one of the major sticking points in getting the election held in the first place. But since the American media has largely left Iraq, less attention has been paid to what is going on there, so I suppose the lack of reporting isn't really surprising. Perhaps some media types will show up for the election itself, in a few weeks.
If a boycott succeeds, and Sunnis refuse to take part in the election, the results will be nowhere near as legitimate as if the entire country had participated. However, just calling for a boycott doesn't mean there will actually be one. The Sunnis boycotted the first round of national elections, and were largely shut out of the halls of power as a result. And they've learned their lesson, it seems, since they did show up for the local elections held last year -- so it will be interesting to see if they show up in significant numbers this time around.
But the real question is not whether Iraq will have a new Prime Minister or not after the election, but whether sectarian attacks will happen in the aftermath. The elections could go better than anyone expects, and go a long way toward solving the seemingly intractable problems of the Sunnis and the Kurds -- but then again, they may solve nothing and leave more anger than before, even to the point of sparking off prolonged sectarian attacks.
Which of these scenarios plays out is the main question the American military will be interested in. America is not so much interested in who wins the election (and who gets which ministerial seat), but in how smoothly the process happens. If relatively little violence happens during and immediately after the election, then the American generals will breathe a sigh of relief and continue their withdrawal from the country. If violence is widespread and ongoing, the withdrawal plans will likely be halted, at least for the time being.
But whichever way things go, American troops have already started coming home, and will continue to do so. Not as quickly as many Americans would like, but in no way any sort of "precipitous withdrawal," as was claimed in the last presidential campaign. President Obama came into office with around 130,000-140,000 American troops in Iraq. Rather than keep to his campaign promise of immediately beginning an 18-month withdrawal, he listened to the Pentagon and took their advice. Obama was also conveniently provided with a hard timetable for withdrawal -- which is where the August and 2011 deadlines came from -- signed by none other than President Bush as he was leaving office (and who had made much political hay out of refusing to even consider such a thing, until he had to actually negotiate a Status Of Forces Agreement with the Iraqis). But still, having said all that, the fact remains that we now have fewer than 100,000 troops in Iraq, and are mostly on schedule to cut that number in half by the end of this summer. Total withdrawal will then be achieved (barring unforeseen circumstances) by the end of next year. As I said, it's not exactly what Obama campaigned on, and it's not fast enough for many critics of the war itself, but I have to at least give Obama credit for the progress made so far on getting American troops out of Iraq.
It's a shame the mainstream media can't be bothered to do so, but that is a whole different problem.
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