The war in Iraq is over. Or so the government and most media outlets will claim on September 1, by which time thousands of U.S. troops will have departed the land of two rivers for other assignments. With this phase of the drawdown, says President Barack Obama, “America’s combat mission will end.” The Pentagon is marking the occasion by changing the name of the Iraq deployment from Operation Iraqi Freedom to Operation New Dawn.
When September 2 dawns, however, 50,000 of our troops will still be in Iraq. The mission of these “non-combat” forces, according to the White House, will be to “train and advise Iraqi Security Forces; conduct partnered and targeted counter-terrorism operations; and protect ongoing U.S. civilian and military efforts.” These tasks sound an awful lot like what American soldiers are supposed to have been doing for much of the last seven years. With the exceptions of the initial invasion and the 2004 assaults on Fallujah, the Iraq War has had few large-scale battles. The Army and Marines have seen plenty of action, but most of it has been in raids on insurgent strongholds, which have frequently been called “partnered and targeted counter-terrorism operations.” One difference from past years is that American troops will rarely conduct patrols, but most have already been confined to base for some time.
As with President George W. Bush’s declaration of the end of “major combat” in May 2003, the close of the “combat mission” is a rebranding rather than a watershed moment.
For those 50,000 “non-combat” personnel and their families, the war won’t be over, and it certainly will not be over for Iraqis. True, the level of mayhem is nowhere near as high as it was from 2005 to 2007, when the country was wracked by multiple loosely connected anti-occupation insurgencies enveloped in a brutal civil war. But according to the Brookings Institution’s Iraq Index, 1,125 Iraqi civilians were killed in war-related incidents in the first six months of 2010. Add to this number the hundreds of ordinary Iraqis who died in truck bombings and other attacks in July and August, the most lethal months for Iraqi civilians in some time.
The ongoing violence is rooted, as Iraqi politicians admit, in persistent civil discord. The sharp divides that produced the civil war were never bridged; indeed, the post-invasion political system has ensured that they will not be. Washington has backed factions, chiefly Shiite Islamist and Kurdish parties, who want to consolidate their own power and care nothing about reconciling differences with their political opponents. The de facto ethno-sectarian quotas for official positions established under the supervision of U.S. occupation authorities in 2003 have contributed to the pervasive sense that politics in Iraq is a zero-sum game. Six months and counting after the March parliamentary elections, the winning candidates have yet to agree on a new government.
Amid the bluntly expressed angst of these politicians that Iraq is not ready for U.S. troops to leave, the Obama administration insists that the drawdown is “firmly on track.” Obama is understandably determined to fulfill his campaign promise to remove Iraq from Americans’ list of worries, but the change upon the advent of Operation New Dawn will be largely atmospheric.
The essential realities of the Iraq War remain the same: Iraq is oil-rich and strategically located at the head of the Persian Gulf. Its ruling elites are fractious and weak. Our continued troop presence is an insurance policy against disaster for the U.S.-sponsored Iraqi politicians, who would otherwise fear violent overthrow, and the White House, which would otherwise fear Iraq’s takeover by unfriendly elements.
Whether or not they are engaged in combat, thousands of American soldiers could therefore be in Iraq for decades. And last but surely not least, none of the foregoing has anything to do with the reasons Americans were given for invading Iraq in the first place.