White House aides were clearly in an upbeat mood when it was announced that the last U.S. combat troops will have left Iraq by the end of August. The withdrawal leaves only about 50,000 American soldiers in the country assigned to training and support roles with the Iraqi army and police, and they too are scheduled to be gone by the end of next year. But that doesn't mean the American presence in Iraq is likely to end anytime soon.
Instead, the U.S. Department of State is already making plans to replace thousands of departing troops with its own diplomatic and security personnel, including a small army of private civilian contractors to perform tasks ranging from overseeing reconstruction efforts to flying unmanned reconnaissance drones to serving as quick response teams to protect diplomats and Iraqi civilians from insurgent attacks.
The State Department's presence in Iraq will in fact be the largest such initiative in U.S. history and will encompass no fewer than five major diplomatic outposts around the country, including the largest U.S. embassy in the world in Baghdad, consulates in Basra and Erbil and two branch offices in Mosul and Kirkuk.
Even with all the diplomatic and paramilitary manpower the Obama administration is throwing at Iraq, the situation there remains extremely fragile. Though violence is down, the low-level insurgency could flare up again, especially if Iraq's stalemated political parties fail to produce a functioning government in the wake of national parliamentary elections held earlier this year.
If Iraqis can't form a new government soon, there's a risk the power vacuum created by the departure of U.S. combat forces could lead to a new round of sectarian violence as Sunni dissidents and Iranian-backed Shiite militias move to settle the issue by force.
Though President Barack Obama presented the withdrawal of combat troops as the fulfillment of a domestic campaign promise, setting a date for bringing U.S. forces home was also supposed to be a warning to Iraqi politicians to get their political house in order. But that hasn't happened, and though U.S. combat forces are leaving anyway, we can hardly declare victory, having sustained 4,400 dead and thousands more wounded since 2003 in an unnecessary war that never should have been fought.
Yet news reports suggest that, despite everything, many of the departing troops believe their sacrifice was worth it. In a war that up to now has produced decidedly mixed results, we respect their feelings and sincerely hope they are right as we honor their service and wish them Godspeed on their way home.