By Karen DeYoung
Washington Post Staff Writer
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.
Another new envoy, Dennis Ross, has been named to explore ways to begin a dialogue with Tehran, even as Obama yesterday pledged to "use all elements of American power to prevent Iran from developing a nuclear weapon."
But full realization of those expansive plans depends on cleaning up the Iraq problem that has drained U.S. troops, treasure and attention for so many years.
In describing the administration's goals for Iraq, Obama touched all the bases, saying the United States will work with the United Nations to support upcoming elections, help improve local government and "serve as an honest broker in pursuit of fair and durable agreements on issues that have divided Iraq's leaders." U.S. troops will continue training Iraq's security forces. Assistance will be rendered to millions of Iraqis displaced and exiled by the war.
"What we will not do," he said, "is let the pursuit of the perfect stand in the way of achievable goals. We cannot rid Iraq of all who oppose America or sympathize with our adversaries. We cannot police Iraq's streets until they are completely safe, nor stay until Iraq's union is perfected. We cannot sustain indefinitely a commitment that has put a strain on our military and will cost the American people nearly a trillion dollars."
Despite its historical and political resonance, the date for ending the U.S. combat mission was perhaps destined to fall in the relatively narrow window between Obama's initial 16-month pledge and the December U.S.-Iraqi agreement that the last U.S. soldier would leave by Dec. 31, 2011. In selecting August 2010 -- 19 months after his inauguration -- Obama followed the recommendations of his senior military advisers.
A senior military official said yesterday that troops remaining after 2010, while not officially designated as "combat brigades," would remain "in harm's way," embedded with Iraqi combat forces and in U.S. counterterrorism missions. The official said that U.S. commanders hope to maintain a presence in Kirkuk, the northern, oil-rich city claimed by both Iraqi Arabs and Kurds and whose status has yet to be decided, and in Mosul, where al-Qaeda forces remain active.
Under the plan, Gen. Raymond T. Odierno, the U.S. commander in Iraq, will assess the overall situation every six months to allow Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates and Adm. Michael Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, to provide guidance to Obama. Although some U.S. units will leave Iraq between now and early next year, the bulk of the combat force is expected to remain, under Odierno's recommendation, at least until national elections take place in December and their outcome is decided.
The military official recalled that the last time Iraqis went to the polls to elect a national government, in December 2005, the nation's fractious political parties did not settle on a prime minister until the following April -- a timeframe that also marked the beginning of an explosion of violence that led to the buildup of U.S. forces in early 2007.
"This is not a question of how fast you can withdraw," the official said, but rather of how large a force is required "to do what you said you were going to do. . . . Ray Odierno is not a wild-eyed optimist. He went through the dark years. He is not going to write a report to the president of the United States that is all sun and roses."