Obama Sets Timetable for Iraq Withdrawal, Calling It Part of Broader Middle East Strategy
Saturday, February 28, 2009
President Obama yesterday fulfilled a campaign promise by setting a date for the withdrawal of U.S. combat forces from Iraq, declaring that while the country they will leave behind will not be perfect, the United States will have reached its "achievable goals" and must move on.
By the August 2010 deadline he set, American troops will have been at war for nearly 7 1/2 years in Iraq, a duration surpassed only by that of the Vietnam War, at more than eight years, and the ongoing Afghanistan conflict, which began in 2001.
Just a day after he transformed the domestic political landscape with a breathtakingly bold budget plan, Obama chose a far more cautious approach to his administration's most momentous foreign policy decision thus far, adopting a timetable that positioned him squarely on the side of military commanders wary of pulling out too many troops, too soon.
"There are some Americans who want to stay in Iraq longer," Obama acknowledged in a speech to Marines at Camp Lejeune, N.C., "and some who want to leave faster."
Those who had sought a speedier withdrawal included many in the Democratic Party and, at one time, Obama himself, who pledged during the campaign that combat troops would depart Iraq at the rate of one brigade a month and would all be home within 16 months of his inauguration.
Not only will the timetable be longer and the pace less even -- with major reductions unlikely to begin until after Iraqi elections in December, according to senior military officials -- but about a third of the current U.S. force of 142,000 will remain in Iraq until the end of 2011. Their new mission, Obama said, will be to train and advise Iraqi security forces, protect diplomats and civilians working in Iraq, and continue the counterterrorism fight against al-Qaeda and other insurgent groups.
The final decision rested on what senior administration officials called a military calculus of "risk management" and "mitigation," as well as on the judgment that it would be better to be known as the president who got out of Iraq, even if it took too long, than the one who was in such a rush that he imperiled a safe and orderly exit. With so many other bold changes in motion, not every risk was seen as worth taking.
In his first speech as commander in chief to assembled U.S. troops on their home turf, Obama provided his most comprehensive description to date of what he called "a new era of American leadership" in "the broader Middle East," including the pursuit of "principled and sustained engagement with all the nations in the region, and that will include Iran and Syria."
He and his national security team see military withdrawal from Iraq, and Baghdad's establishment as a sovereign regional player, as part of a broad and interconnected regional strategy being rolled out even as it is formulated. Special envoy George J. Mitchell is about to begin his second visit to Israel and the Palestinian territories, and Obama has promised direct presidential involvement in forging a lasting peace.
Last week, Obama announced the deployment of 17,000 additional U.S. troops to Afghanistan. His budget pledged significantly more money for Pakistan, and the administration has launched a high-level review to formulate one overarching strategy toward both countries.
In Washington last week, special envoy Richard C. Holbrooke orchestrated the most sustained and substantive dialogue between top officials of the two often-estranged countries that they have ever had with each other or with the United States.
Under Obama, the CIA is serving as hopeful midwife to a new intelligence relationship between Pakistan and India, designed to end their distraction with each other and refocus Islamabad's attention on the Taliban and al-Qaeda.