There is some unhappiness with President Obama's plan to end U.S. military involvement in Iraq. But those criticisms are not justified. Let's look at what candidate Obama promised and what he is doing.
During his campaign, President Obama talked repeatedly of removing all combat forces from Iraq in approximately 16 months at a rate of one to two brigades per month. This position was staked out during the "surge" when there were 20 brigades in Iraq and withdrawing one to two per month fit a 16-month timetable. Today, in the wake of the surge, there are approximately 14 brigades in Iraq. However, the President has stuck by the 16-month timetable. This situation provides more flexibility than has been recognized.
Candidate Obama did not say he would remove all U.S. forces from Iraq within 16 months. Rather, he spoke of removing all combat forces and specifically said some support troops would remain to provide logistical assistance and training for Iraqi forces, to hunt down al Qaeda in Iraq, and to protect the U.S. embassy and other U.S. personnel and assets.
Military planning to meet the president's objectives began before the inauguration, albeit reluctantly. The CENTOM commander (General David Petraeus) and the U.S. commander in Iraq (General Raymond Odierno) appear to have developed a 24 month option cued to a slower redeployment timetable probably aimed at compliance with the so called status of forces agreement (SOFA) signed by the United States and Iraq in late 2008. The actual name of the agreement, which goes far beyond a normal SOFA is far more comforting: "Agreement between the United States of America and the Republic of Iraq On the Withdrawal of United States Forces from Iraq and the Organization of their Activities during Their Temporary Presence in Iraq." Unlike the President's 16-month timetable for removing combat forces, the SOFA mandates the removal of all U.S. forces -- combat and non-combat -- by the end of 2011. The Joint Chiefs of Staff are likely to have adopted a position somewhere between the President's campaign pledge and the field commanders' plan for slower redeployment. The approved 18-month timetable seems to be their recommendation.
If the President's timeline -- with normal caveats about circumstances on the ground -- is to be implemented, the review process, completed at the end of February 2009 and a two month period to finish the detailed planning needed, would mean that the 16-month timeline would begin in May and carry through August 2010. So the much-criticized 18-month timetable is in reality, I would argue, the 16 months promised by the president plus time to review and plan. Did anyone really expect that the redeployment would begin at noon on 20 January?
The pace of the redeployment is critical. It must begin soon, before the July plebiscite on the SOFA, to show the Iraqi people that the occupation is ending. And it must leave enough combat power in place to help quell any violence during the parliamentary elections in December. Within those parameters, there is sufficient flexibility for an orderly redeployment.
And what about the force levels after the combat forces are redeployed? What will the estimated 35-50,000 military personnel do and for how long? They will be there for another 16 months until the end of 2011 when the SOFA requires their withdrawal and they will do the missions specified: training and logistics, hunting alQaeda, and protecting U.S. personnel and assets as candidate Obama stated. Clearly, even in this scenario there still would be hundreds -- not thousands -- of U.S. military personnel in Iraq after 2011 in the form of Marine guards at the U.S. embassy, defense attaché personnel, and, perhaps, a Military Assistance Advisory Team.
So the president's plan fits his pledge to be as careful getting out of Iraq as Bush was careless getting in. It meets, in my view, his plan to redeploy all combat troops within 16 months. And it will leave Iraq with their sovereignty and their chance to make a country worthy of the sacrifice of our brave men and women.