06/25/2010 11:04 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

6 1/2 Years On, the U.S. Mission in Iraq has Only Just Begun

You don't have to take my word for it, but when a career diplomat to the world's most volatile region says so, it certainly warrants a closer look. A few days ago, former U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Ryan C. Crocker spoke on "Lessons from a Long War" to a Harvard Kennedy School audience, where he emphasized: the importance of historical and geographical competence in order to understand the Middle East; strategic patience when defining goals and commitments; and the relationship between major action and major risk.

While perceptive and insightful, one comment was particularly striking. When it came to Iraq, Ambassador Crocker asserted that 6 1/2 years on, the U.S. commitment is "just getting underway." Shocking, isn't it? With the decision to escalate troops in Afghanistan blanketing the 24-hour news cycle, articles, commentaries, and White House war room discussion, one fundamental question still underpins the veracity concerning U.S. engagement in Iraq: are we ever truly getting out?

From a man who described himself that evening as sitting in the 2nd row--3rd from the left--in each and every photograph of the last quarter century representing major setbacks to U.S. interests in the Middle East, there seems to be a colossal disconnect between the rhetoric and reality of the Obama Administration's strategy to withdraw troop levels in Iraq from 120,000 down to 50,000 by August 2010. And while General Ray Odierno, the commanding military officer in the country, projects a sharp decline in boots on the ground throughout next year, how many tens of thousands of soldiers must remain to ensure a minimum level of stability 10, 20, 50 years down the line? Is it 30,000 troops as is the case of Korea, 50,000 in the case of Japan, 70,000 in the case of Germany, or more? In either case, we are approaching that threshold very quickly. Therefore, if ending the war in Iraq really means de-escalating the effort to a rigid 40, 50, or 60,000 servicemen and women, reaching such a milestone can hardly be classified as an end to the war.

In a country that is only beginning to carve out the proper relationships between federal, regional and provincial governments, the retired diplomat went on to draw a parallel between such national soul-searching with that of the U.S. states rights debate, reminding the audience that "it took us about 87 years to resolve the bloodiest conflict in our history." What is the role of the United States in facilitating this process, and how many decades of engagement does it demand? When discussing a winning strategy in Afghanistan, the elephant in the room we have minimal control over and cleverly ignore, is unquestionably neighboring Pakistan. In the case of Iraq, the discussion about ending the war skillfully ignores the history of large and sustained U.S. troop levels in countries America has invaded.

President Obama's era of engagement is welcomed in the Middle East; the Cairo speech was humble, nuanced, and emblematic of a fresh wave of politicking with the region. However, a militarized foreign policy dating back decades has more relevance now than ever before in a time of re-branding America's standing in the region, for the mere presence of U.S. forces in Iraq and Afghanistan have arguably inflamed anti-American sentiment around the Muslim world to new heights. Does ending the war really mean ending the war? With the largest and most expensive embassy in the world--the size of Vatican City--built in the heart of Baghdad, one wonders whether withdrawing from Iraq was ever considered an option.

For more articles by Rahim Kanani, click here.