Barack Obama fulfilled on Wednesday what had initially been his biggest campaign selling point to bring the US war in Iraq to a close – “to be as careful getting out, as we were careless going in”, as the president put it on the campaign trail. But the move, which exactly met Mr Obama’s pledge to end US combat operations within 16 months of taking office, is not as clear cut as it appears. In spite of formally switching on Wednesday from a military to a civilian-led US operation in Iraq, around 50,000 US troops will remain in place until the end of next year and possibly beyond. But Mr Obama’s declaration, which he explained in a low key and non-triumphal Oval Office address on Tuesday night, has intensified debate among US foreign policy analysts about the merits of pre-announcing deadlines for withdrawal.
Much like in Afghanistan, where Mr Obama has said he will start to withdraw US troops from July, the president argued that the deadline in Iraq would encourage Iraqis to hasten domestic political reform. But Wednesday’s ceremonies in Baghdad come amid uncertainty about the shape and composition of the next Iraqi government.
Almost six months after Iraq went to the polls, there is still no government in place and little prospect of an early resolution. The auguries for Afghanistan are clear.
“If you’re sitting in Afghanistan and wondering what “conditions-based” withdrawal means, then Iraq will not encourage you to think the Obama administration is flexible about its deadlines,” says Kenneth Pollack, a former Clinton administration official at the Brookings Institution. “What it looks like is the fulfilment of a US domestic electoral deadline, which is in a sense what it is.”
Mr Pollack, who fell out with many fellow Democrats over his robust support for the invasion of Iraq in March 2003 from George W. Bush, former US president, says roughly half of all civil wars revert to civil wars within five years of a ceasefire. Other foreign policy analysts worry that Mr Obama’s address, which was very carefully phrased to leave him some flexibility in Iraq over the next months, could be tempting fate.
In contrast to many of the leading US network and cable news channels, which bluntly proclaimed an end to the Iraq war – one even had a clock that counted the hours down – analysts are more wary. “Iraq is at as critical a stage as it has been since 2003,” says Anthony Cordesman, a senior analyst at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.
“The US may be announcing the “withdrawal” of its combat forces . . . the fact is, however, that the US withdrawal is far from over, the Iraq war is not over, it is not “won”, and any form of stable end state in Iraq is probably impossible before 2020.”
In his address, Mr Obama avoided any hint of repeating George W. Bush’s notorious “mission accomplished” pronouncement a few weeks after the 2003 invasion. But it will be up to historians, rather than political analysts, to decide whether he was technically correct.
“It is only through the rear-view mirror that you can tell when wars have ended,” says Mr Pollack. “In 1950, Harry S. Truman [then president] tried to sell the war in Korea as ‘police action’. But historians rightly define it a war. Events on the ground in Iraq will determine whether President Obama is right. As they say, ‘saying it don’t make it so’.”