Best Defense

Obama’s war

News flash for the president-elect: All our troops are combat troops. It isn’t like some American soldiers stroll around Iraq unarmed. Nor do the insurgents inquire about the troops’ MOS (military occupational specialties) before detonating an IED. Indeed, I feel safer in Iraq accompanying an infantry unit on foot patrol than I do while riding ...

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Sen. Barack Obama listens as Gen. David H. Petraeus discusses security improvements in Baghdad while giving him and Sens. Jack Reed and Chuck Hagel an aerial tour of the city Monday. (Photo by U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Lorie Jewell) (Released)

News flash for the president-elect: All our troops are combat troops. It isn’t like some American soldiers stroll around Iraq unarmed. Nor do the insurgents inquire about the troops’ MOS (military occupational specialties) before detonating an IED. Indeed, I feel safer in Iraq accompanying an infantry unit on foot patrol than I do while riding in a convoy of transport soldiers, who are much more likely to get popped by a roadside bomb. So his promise to get “combat troops” out of Iraq in the next 16 months is a phrase that means much less than it appears to. At any rate, I bet Obama is wrong: I think we are going to have tens of thousands of troops in Iraq — mentoring, advising and engaged in combat — for many years to come.

The recent Status of Forces Agreement also means less than it seems. For example, U.S. forces are supposed to get out of major bases in the cities later this year. But there really aren’t major big bases in the cities now-the last time I was in Iraq I was told there is really only one — and U.S. military advisors will remain in urban outposts along with Iraqi forces. I suspect the SOFA really is most meaningful for the political help it will give Prime Minister Maliki in getting re-elected at the end of 2009 by taking the American presence off the table as a wedge issue for Iraqis. 

Here are two grim early predictions for the new administration in Iraq:

  • Obama’s first year in Iraq is going to be tougher than Bush’s last year. Three reasons for that: First, three rounds of elections are scheduled in 2009, and those tend to be violent in Iraq. Second, the easy U.S. troop withdrawals have been made, and the pullouts at the end of this year will be riskier. Finally, none of the basic existential problems facing Iraq have been answered-the power relationships between groups, leadership of the Shiites, the sharing of oil revenue, the status of the disputed city of Kirkuk, to name just the most pressing ones. Compounding the problem will be the incorrect perception of many Americans that the Iraq was all but over when Obama took office. 
  • Despite the conventional wisdom that the war is nearly over, Obama’s war in Iraq may last longer than Bush’s, which clocks in at a robust 5 years and 10 months. “So now you back in the trap–just that, trapped,” to quote Big Boi and Dre. My best guess is that we will have at least 35,000 troops there in 2015, as Obama’s likely second term is winding down. (Self-promotional moment: more on all this in my book “The Gamble: General Petraeus and the American Military Adventure in Iraq, 2006-08,” out Feb. 9 from Penguin Press.)

Meantime, marinate a minute on Petraeus’s letter to his troops last month: “The year ahead will contain significant challenges, among them: provincial district and national elections; resilient enemies still carrying out deadly attacks; lingering ethno-sectarian mistrust and competition; malign external influences; and a national referendum on the US-Iraq Strategic Agreement.”

To those who think this thing is almost over: What part of “lingering ethno-sectarian mistrust” don’t you understand? And if you think Petraeus was simply being cautious, listen to former Iraqi prime minister Iyad Allawi, who was installed by the United States but whose pessimistic assessment over the weekend was, “I did not imagine the political process would eat itself from inside or that it would abandon the rule of law and establish political sectarianism.”

Photo of Obama with General Petraeus in Iraq by Lorie Jewell/U.S. Army via Getty Images

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at ricksblogcomment@gmail.com. Twitter: @tomricks1

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