What Will the U.S. Withdrawal From Iraq Look Like?

Military historian Martin van Creveld said back in 2005 that the American-led invasion of Iraq was "the most foolish war since the Emperor Augustus sent his legions into Germany in 9 B.C. and lost them." Except to correct the date (A.D. 9, in fact), the influential Israeli scholar says his opinion of the Iraq adventure hasn't changed. And as it starts to wind down, with a complete withdrawal of U.S. forces due inside the next 30 months, van Creveld's vision of the U.S. military's final days in Iraq is, well, pretty grim. "Several years ago I wrote an article in which I said the invasion would end exactly like Vietnam, with people hanging from the skids of helicopters," he told me over the phone this week. "I may have exaggerated a bit. But not much."

As President Barack Obama met with Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki on Wednesday, in fact, the big question lurking behind all the official optimism was how best to insure that an orderly U.S. withdrawal does not become a retreat or, in the end, a rout. And the answers are far from clear.

Already there are unsettling omens. Under the security agreement signed by the Bush administration last year, American troops ceased to lead patrols in Baghdad as of June 30. The Maliki government implied they were leaving the cities altogether (which wasn't quite true) and declared the date "National Sovereignty Day." Thousands poured into the streets to celebrate the end, or at least the beginning of the end, of American occupation.

When it turned out there were quite a few U.S. soldiers still around, the public was not pleased, and neither, it appears, were some Iraqi military officers. Col. Ali Fadhil, a brigade commander in Baghdad, told the Associated Press earlier this week that American soldiers could no longer patrol on their own and had to ask permission of the Iraqis, and that was just the way things would have to be from now on. "The American soldiers are in prisonlike bases," he said, none too delicately, "as if they are under house arrest."

Asked to respond, Defense Secretary Robert Gates told a press conference: "It is perhaps a measure of our success in Iraq that politics have come to the country." But the American commander in Baghdad, Maj. Gen. Daniel P. Bolger, was not so diplomatic in an e-mail leaked to The Washington Post. "Maybe something was 'lost in translation,' " he said, referring to the text of the security agreement. "We are not going to hide our support role in the city. I'm sorry, the Iraqi politicians lied/dissembled/spun, but we are not invisible, nor should we be." As he saw it, "our [Iraqi] partners burn our fuel, drive roads cleared by our engineers, live in bases built with our money, operate vehicles fixed with our parts, eat food paid for by our contracts, watch our [surveillance] video feeds, serve citizens with our [funds], and benefit from our air cover."

Indeed. One could almost lose sight of the fact it's the Iraqis' country. Except that the Iraqis don't.

At a press conference by video link on Tuesday, the same Maj. Gen. Dan "Sort-of-Rhymes-With-Soldier" Bolger turned on his all-American charm and used more temperate language. But it's doubtful he did much to ease Iraqi resentment of American arrogance, which runs deep and remains dangerous. The Sons of Iraq, those former insurgents who have decided for the moment to support the Maliki government and work with the Americans, "account for about a third of the fighting strength of the Iraqi forces that protect the people of Baghdad," said Bolger. They are, he said, "the local version of Neighborhood Watch."

In fact, the SOI, as the military calls them, are Sunni, tribal, fiercely proud, and remain a wild card in the very political and potentially very violent deck that's likely to be shuffled and reshuffled over the next two years. "Any Son of Iraq, by definition, is a former insurgent," Bolger said. "And just given human nature, if you've got about 40- to 50,000 of them, there's going to be a couple of them that are going to drift back the other way. And we have seen some of that."

"Iraq is hard, it is going to go on being hard, and it is hard all the time," former U.S. ambassador to Baghdad Ryan Crocker told a conference in Paris on June 30. And for precisely that reason, when he was negotiating the security agreement with the Iraqi government in 2007 and 2008, he also labored over a less-well-known strategic framework that he calls "a blueprint for a relationship that lasts well beyond 2011." Indeed, that was where Obama and Maliki sought to keep the focus in the Rose Garden on Wednesday. The strategic framework aims to nurture commercial, scientific, legal, cultural, and educational ties—a whole array of soft but potentially powerful stabilizing forces in the relationship.

To which we say "good luck," strategy-wise. But General Bolger at his press conference gave a picture of the down-to-earth tactical decision-making of the American military during the drawdown, and it is disconcertingly uncertain. By next August, a year from now, all U.S. combat operations are supposed to be over, and American troops levels are supposed to have dropped from 130,000 to a "residual force" of 50,000. But it seems nobody has decided where they'll be or precisely what they'll be doing.

"I've seen all kinds of options proposed," said Bolger—from "spread out in the countryside, sort of doing training out at ranges and facilities," to deployments "just outside the cities, to assist with counterinsurgency-type training or tasks," to moving troops "out to the borders" to help an Iraqi military that has been focused inward, killing rebellious locals, and start to deal with the problem of "a potential invasion from some unfriendly country." Bolger said he's "seen all those different versions."

In fact, history gives a pretty good sense of what the challenges for the departing Americans are going to be, whether you look at Vietnam in the early 1970s, or the Russian withdrawal from Afghanistan in the late 1980s, or the Israeli pullout from Lebanon in several ugly stages from 1982 to 2000. One of the first things that happens is that erstwhile allies of the departing force start to cut deals with—and pass on quantities of intelligence to—the powers that are likely to stay in place. In this case, Iran. If supply lines are long, as they certainly are in Iraq, they become increasingly vulnerable to attack and harassment, as enormous amounts of matériel and the last soldiers traveling with it are pulled out. (The classic horror story from history was the British retreat from Kabul in 1842, when 16,000 people set out for Jalalabad and only one man made it.)

In Iraq, says Van Creveld, by the time the Americans are down to the last few tens of thousands of troops, "it all depends on what the Iraqis themselves want." They might do what the Afghan mujahedin did watching the Russians pull out of Afghanistan in 1988, he says. "They just stood back and jeered." Or they might be busy fighting among themselves. There's always some savage score-settling when occupiers withdraw, and in Iraq the unofficial, unsettled border between Kurdistan and the Arab southern parts of the country already is known as "the trigger line."

Or maybe, and let's hope, the next Iraqi Sovereignty Day will just be a big parade and a big party.

Yeah. Let's hope.