Ending combat operations in Iraq

The 4th Stryker Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division was the final U.S. combat brigade to be pulled out of the country.

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Ernesto Londono
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, August 19, 2010; 12:00 PM

Washington Post foreign correspondent Ernesto Londono was online Thurday, Aug. 19, at Noon ET to discuss the drawdown of U.S. troops in Iraq, fulfilling the Obama administration's pledge to end the U.S. combat mission by the end of August. About 50,000 U.S. troops will remain in Iraq, mainly as a training force.

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Ernesto Londono: Hi folks. Over the weekend, I embedded with a battalion that was part of the last combat brigade to leave Iraq. I was with them as they drove into Kuwait on Stryker fighting vehicles. The military says Operation Iraqi Freedom ends as these troops depart -- as does its combat mission in Iraq. I'm here to tackle your questions about what this turning point means and what kind of country these soldiers are leaving behind.

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Fairfax, Va.: What happens in Iraq when outbreaks occur? Will the 50,000 that are left there leave their office jobs and fight the enemy? Do we expect this to happen?

Ernesto Londono: That's a great question. These days the Iraqi Army and police are the first responders at most attacks, particularly in the cities. U.S. soldiers continue to provide key resources such as air cover, intelligence gathering tools and forensics analysis. But instances in which American troops engage in combat are few and far between these days. If there were to be a major outbreak of violence in the months ahead -- or a political earthquake -- the U.S. military would have to make some tough choices about how to respond. I don't see much evidence that the Obama administration or commanders on the ground have much interest in seeing U.S. troops injected forcefully into combat again.

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Washington, D.C.: What's the feeling among the troops in Iraq? Do they feel like the "mission" has been "accomplished" again?

Ernesto Londono: I think soldiers these days are pretty careful about declaring "mission accomplished," given the tortured history of those two words as they pertain to the Iraq war. Many leave feeling proud that they carried out the training mission they were tasked with -- and they feel that they leave behind an increasingly competent and strong Iraqi security force. However, many worry that the security gains could erode as the U.S. disengages, mainly because they don't think the country's political establishment has grown or matured in a way commensurate to the evolution of the security forces.

I would say the prevailing feeling is one of relief. They now see the end in sight. Those leaving now know they probably won't have to come back in uniform -- at least any time soon.

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Annapolis, Md.: What's the feeling in Iraq? Is the country stable now, or at least more stable? Do we worry about al-Qaeda and the Taliban as much? Is it a place that many feel they want to forget?

Ernesto Londono: Iraq is less dangerous than it was in 2006 and 2007 -- but that doesn't mean it's on a gliding path. It feels pretty tenuous right now. Bombings and rocket attacks continue to occur on a daily basis. Sectarian tensions have ebbed, but not disappeared. The politicians have failed to form a government more than five months after Iraq's parliamentary election. For Iraqis, these realities -- compounded by the withdrawal of the U.S. military -- have created deep uncertainty about the future and downright fear about what comes next.

I don't think al Qaeda in Iraq will rebound as its old self -- a dogmatic extremist organization with strong ties to like-minded individuals overseas. But I think its remnants could be reconfigured as a nationalistic group that could woo Sunnis that feel disenfranchised by the Shiite-dominated government.

Regarding your last question -- yes, I think Iraq is a place many would like to forget.

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Washington, D.C.: Do you feel like Americans are even paying attention enough to these wars to even notice that combat in Iraq has been declared over? I can't imagine as a soldier or military family that it hasn't occurred to them that America was never really at war, just a portion of its population.

Ernesto Londono: I think America's all volunteer armed force allows many of its citizens to tune out of its wars. I think it's a sore point for many soldiers and military families.

Those of us you have reported from Iraq for years feel it is important to keep Americans informed about the course of the war. There was considerable interest in Iraq when the surge was being planned and then when it was being implemented. I think interest dropped off after the 2008 bilateral agreement stipulating the timing of America's exit was signed.

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Bethesda, Md.: I saw a news report the other night in which an Iraqi practically begged for U.S. troops not to leave. Are many Iraqis worried about the U.S. leaving and what their country might turn into?

Ernesto Londono: Yes, many Iraqis are afraid of what will happen when the U.S. military leaves. This is especially true among minority groups, such as Sunnis.

There's a sense that American forces have in recent years served as something of a conscience or moral arbiter in Iraq.

How will Iraqi forces treat people when no American is around to watch or step in?

Will conflicts that Americans have been quietly mediating turn violent when the U.S. military is no longer there.

I think these questions keep Iraqis up at night -- and perhaps rightly so.

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Austin, Tex.: Do the troops in general express any sentiment on the political debates raging at home, i.e., DADT, Obama policy on AFPAK, mosque at 9/11, or are they careful after McChrystal debacle in what they say to reporters?

Ernesto Londono: Some are pretty tuned in to American politics. Many are not. It's not always easy while being deployed to keep up with the news.

I think some commanders have become more guarded about what they tell reporters as a result of the McChrystal debacle. But among soldiers, I haven't picked up much reluctance to talk.

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Bridgewater, Mass.: Is there any absolutely final date by which it is felt that the Iraqis will have to have formed a government? Or could this squabbling theoretically last until it's time for new elections?

Ernesto Londono: They don't have a deadline. In theory, it could drag on for months. I don't think that would be tenable. But no one seems to know how this will play out.

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Washington, D.C.: Any sense among troops of "was this worth the cost" or do most troops do the mission required and not engage in the political? How much does the debate at home affect the troops?

Ernesto Londono: Some have strong opinions about this question -- and you'll hear from folks on both sides of it. Many will tell you the whole thing was a waste of time and money, and express bitterness at having had comrades die for a cause they don't think was worthy.

For others, though, regardless of the early justifications for the invasion, it was important to stick it out -- to leave in a dignified manner. And I think at this point, many feel that they're able to walk away holding their heads high.

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Bel Air, Md.: Did McChrystal lose respect among the troops for the Rolling Stone interview? What was the buzz over there about it?

Ernesto Londono: I don't think so. I think he's still a rock star in military circles. But I wouldn't say it's the talk of town in Iraq.

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Washington, D.C.: Is Iraq still a dangerous place?

Ernesto Londono: Yes. it is. Bombings, rocket attacks, assassinations and kidnappings continue to occur regularly.

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Hampton, Va.: What are the odds that some of these troops will be deployed to AfPak? What do the troops think of that war? Do they see it as connected to Iraq? How long will this unit be at home before they may be deployed to a combat area again?

Ernesto Londono: These guys don't know where or when they'll deploy next. They will be home for at least a year, since army rule say that units must get at least as much home time as the duration of their last deployment.

I don't think many soldiers see a strong link between the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Many have served in both. I think among folks in combat units, Afghanistan is a more attractive theater -- one where they can do more fighting and less nation building.

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Silver Spring, Md.: With the elected representatives unable to form a government, and 100-200 civilians dying each month via bombings, is there any reason to be hopeful that things won't go to crap once the U.S. "combat" forces leave? What about next year when the "non-combat" forces leave?

Ernesto Londono: Well, it's often hard to be hopeful in Iraq. But Iraqis have a strange way of figuring things out at the 11th hour, when everything seems doomed. So they might come up with a solution to the political impasse that works for them and makes sense.

Then again, it's been nearly six months since the vote was held and we're not seeing much evidence that a breakthrough is around the corner.

Stay tuned...

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Ernesto Londono: I think we're out of time. Thanks for your thoughtful questions. And thanks for reading.

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Leesburg, Ga.: I keep hearing that this is the end of the war, but my son, at Ft. Hood, tells me that he is scheduled to rotate back to Iraq for the 3rd time this fall. Why are we still send combat units, if the 50k remaining are only there to do training. Sounds like a waste of money, time and people. His outfit isn't trained to train....They are trained to fight.

Ernesto Londono: That's a good question. The 50,000 troops that will remain include six combat brigades. They have been reconfigured slightly and rebranded "assist and advice brigades." Military officials say the key difference is the change in mission -- from one heavy on combat to one almost exclusively focused on training.

Many soldiers I've spoken to share your frustration and feel that the whole "assist and advice" business is a bit duplicitous. They're still combat soldiers in a a place that remains a combat zone.

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