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Iraq after U.S. combat forces withdraw

On Tuesday, President Obama formally announces the end of the United States combat mission in Iraq. His comments will likely focus on the situation on the ground and on our military successes. This is to be expected; beginning in January 2007, with the appointment of Army Gen. David H. Petraeus to implement an overhauled strategy fortified by a “surge” of U.S. troops, our military delivered security to the people of Iraq.

But Baghdad is not the only capital that matters in the Iraq equation. How Washington supports post-combat Iraq will be crucial to ensuring that our hard-fought military success translates to strategic gain for the United States.

While the president will surely reaffirm Vice President Joe Biden’s message that “drawing down our troops does not mean we are disengaging from Iraq,” the question remains whether he will be speaking for both of the political branches of the government, the executive and the legislative.

Congress has a pretty good record of funding our forces when they go into a combat zone; the record is mixed when it comes to funding our post-combat efforts. While comparisons between the conflict in Iraq and the Vietnam War are less common today than they were in 2005 and 2006, when our military success was in doubt, the Vietnam analogy may be applicable in Iraq in 2010.

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Many believe that by 1973, the U.S. military had a formula in place that would end its involvement in Vietnam and ensure South Vietnam’s stability after the withdrawal of U.S. forces. Yet after the signing of the Paris peace agreement that year, Congress began cutting Nixon administration requests for military and economic assistance to South Vietnam. Two years later, Saigon fell to North Vietnam. Congress must not repeat the mistakes of the Vietnam era and cut off support to Iraq as our forces redeploy.

Fortunately, the differences between post-combat Iraq and post-combat Vietnam are greater than their similarities. Only the most strident antiwar critics reject the success of the surge in Iraq. Even Obama, a onetime critic of the strategy, now recognizes its success.

These factors should give legislators the breathing room to continue providing crucial support to Iraq. Nevertheless, Congress is already giving mixed signals as to whether it will stay committed. The pending defense authorization bill in the House fully funds the president’s request to continue building Iraq’s security forces, but companion legislation in the Senate provides for only half of the request and puts restrictions on the remaining funding. This is an ominous development. If past is prologue, when military funding is in doubt, State Department funds will certainly be at risk too.

Our military has done all that we have asked it to do in Iraq. Gens. Petraeus and Ray T. Odierno successfully built a security architecture that allows U.S. forces to ensure security there through 2011. But the U.S. “advise and assist” force presence, which expires Dec. 31, 2011, is only one component of U.S. support to Iraq. Continued investment in civil structures and in Iraq’s security forces, now more than 650,000 strong, is crucial. As national security expert Anthony H. Cordesman recently noted, “congressional cutbacks in the State Department and Department of Defense aid and advisory plans will end any chance of an effective strategic partnership and lose the war by default.”

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During an earlier chapter of the Iraq war, the executive branch and members of Congress defeated attempts to limit war funding, prevent the surge and restrict our mission in Iraq. That effort gave Petraeus, Odierno and our troops the opportunity to achieve success in Iraq. By taking the fight to Al Qaeda, by confronting terrorist threats and the insurgency, America’s military men and women provided greater security to the Iraqi population and gave its government the time to build capacity to more effectively meet the needs of the Iraqi people.

Despite what some on the left say today, the success of the surge is undeniable, and our troops, along with their families, deserve great credit for their courage and sacrifice. Our military and civilian personnel in Iraq have answered the call of duty. Now Congress must do the same.

Rep. Howard P. “Buck” McKeon (R-Santa Clarita) is the ranking Republican member of the House Armed Services Committee.


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