Stay the Course of Withdrawal

When Should the United States Leave Iraq?

Courtesy Reuters

Having held parliamentary elections on March 7 and endured a protracted period of vote counting, Iraqis are now focused on the arduous process of government formation. As this Iraqi drama unfolds, U.S. military forces are preparing to redeploy according to the U.S.-Iraq security agreement of November 2008 and President Barack Obama’s announced timetable for withdrawal. The impending drawdown -- from 96,000 troops today to about 50,000 on September 1, 2010, and zero on January 1, 2012 -- will require the United States to defer increasingly to Iraqis as they dictate their own future.

This, in turn, requires that the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) continue their development. The increased proficiency of the ISF is a main reason why, though Iraqis will continue to endure grievous violence in coming years, there is no longer a broad-based insurgency that poses a strategic threat to the political process or the government. But the ISF’s progress is relatively new: although President George W. Bush said in 2005 that “as the Iraqis stand up, we will stand down,” the ISF has only recently achieved a substantial level of operational independence.

Over the past year, the United States has drawn down more than 40,000 troops while turning over control of Iraqi population centers to the ISF. In September 2009, the Department of Defense reported that the Iraqi army had 189 combat battalions, most of which qualified as being “in the lead” for the purposes of conducting operations. Relatively few of those battalions have achieved Operational Readiness Assessment (ORA) Level 1, meaning that they are logistics-capable units with the ability to function wholly independently. The vast majority of “in the lead” battalions have achieved ORA Level 2; they can plan, execute, and sustain counterinsurgency operations -- but only with U.S. assistance.

Taking an overly pessimistic view of the current political environment and appraising the ISF’s progress stringently, some U.S. commentators have recently been urging the Obama administration to reconsider its timeline, suggesting that its implementation would destabilize Iraq at its moment of greatest vulnerability. But

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