Obama Touts Promise Kept on Plan to Leave Iraq

Obama: Combat troops to leave Iraq this month "as promised and on schedule." Charles Dharapak / AP

Four weeks from now, the last combat troops will leave Iraq—part of President Obama’s original campaign promise to draw down combat operations within 16 months of taking office (it’s been 19, but still, not bad). That will leave 50,000 troops in the country to keep the peace and continue training the Iraqi security forces for another year and a half, until the U.S. is completely out of the country at the end of 2011.

How can it be done? Obama argued in front of an audience of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans in Marietta, Ga., on Monday that violence has substantially decreased and, despite ongoing killings, U.S. forces have mostly been spared. Compared with Afghanistan, where Americans are still very much in the crosshairs of insurgents, Iraq is slowly stabilizing. Americans once tasked with keeping order in the country have transitioned to backstopping Iraqi forces, who appear to have firmly planted their feet. "I made a promise that by Aug. 31, all of America’s combat troops would leave Iraq," he said. "And that’s what we’re doing, as promised and on schedule."

It would be a satisfying story with an acceptable ending. But it’s a strange way of declaring victory. In fact, Iraq is a more dangerous place for civilians than Afghanistan. Last month 350 civilians were killed in Iraq, according to estimates compiled by the AP from the Iraqi government. A smaller number, 270, were killed in Afghanistan. The number of wounded civilians has a similar split, 680 in Iraq and 600 in Afghanistan. (U.S. officials say their records show the numbers are lower, but only slightly.) Unnamed Iraqi officials point out to the AP that the past month alone has been the deadliest in the last two years.

The difference between the two countries, though, is that Iraq has a security infrastructure in place, or at least in the advanced stages of being built. Despite the Iraqi security forces' ongoing struggle to quell violence, they’ve had considerably more success than the Afghan police force, which NEWSWEEK labeled on its cover in March “The Gang That Couldn’t Shoot Straight.” Violence remains high in parts of Iraq, including in the north, in widespread attacks on Shiite civilians. But the most significant data point the White House cites is that U.S. troops have been out of Iraqi cities since last summer, and those urban centers haven’t fallen into chaos. So it’s reasonable to think that a year from now, Iraqi troops will be able to counter insurgents in rural areas as well.

Claiming Iraq is now safer is a circular argument, and it’s an odd way to declare victory. What’s more accurate is that Iraq is simply a safer place for Americans, which explains why U.S. forces may no longer be needed. But Obama’s veiled claim of success is less to say “we won” than it is to declare that we successfully found and trained someone else to keep up the good fight. And desperately hope it can still be won.