Withdrawing from Iraq

Quietly and hesitatingly, the U.S. and Iraqi governments have reached a tentative agreement to send U.S. combat troops home by the end of 2011. The lack of fanfare is in part because of the gantlet of Iraqi politicians the deal must pass through before becoming official -- three different Iraqi leadership groups and the parliament will all get a chance at changing the details. The Bush administration has also downplayed the significance of the deal, saying it would merely set “aspirational goals” for troop withdrawals, not deadlines.

Nevertheless, even a tentative agreement is a welcome development because it brings the two countries that much closer to ending more than five years of U.S. occupation. The draft calls for U.S. troops to depart from Iraqi cities by mid-2009 and the rest of the country 2 1/2 years later, with a relatively small contingent remaining to advise and train Iraqi security forces. The withdrawal dates would be subject to change if conditions took a turn for the worse, although that decision would reportedly be left to the Iraqi government, not the next American president.

As we’ve learned from the ebb and flow of the war in Afghanistan, our entanglement in Iraq may not end when the last combat troops leave. The Iraqi government still hasn’t achieved the political reconciliation that’s critical to long-term stability, with impasses remaining over provincial elections, reforming the constitution and dividing the nation’s oil revenue. But there’s also the prospect that ending the occupation will improve chances for peace by giving insurgents one less recruiting tool and rallying point. In addition, as we’ve seen in the last year, Iraqi forces are increasingly able to defeat militants without U.S. troops in the lead. The Iraqi military isn’t uniformly competent, but its skill is improving as its peacekeeping responsibilities increase.

By insisting that the deal wouldn’t impose a timetable for withdrawal, the Bush administration may be playing semantic games to reduce the impact on the contest between Republican presidential candidate John McCain (a vocal opponent of timetables) and Democratic contender Barack Obama (a longtime proponent). Each is already claiming credit for the deal: McCain contends that the troop surge he championed made the tentative pact possible, while Obama argues that the Iraqis and the Bush administration were following his lead in setting a withdrawal date. Either way, as long as the deal holds, the Iraq war will drift further into the background of a campaign that had already moved on to other issues, including the slumping economy and stubbornly high gas prices. Voters would be wrong to assume that America’s job in Iraq is done, but an agreement even on “aspirational goals” will help speed the work.