Last week, U.S. President Barack Obama told U.S. Marines at Camp Lejeune in South Carolina that U.S. combat forces will be out of Iraq in less than 18 months, and the rest will be gone by the end of 2011.
The withdrawal timeline was made possible, at least in part, by stability achieved by the so-called "surge," a temporary but significant increase of U.S. forces in Iraq that began in early 2007.
Given the wild fluctuations in violence of the past six years, can Obama expect to be able to stick to his timeline?
Yes, but with at least one caveat, says Michael O'Hanlon, who studies security issues at the Brookings Institution, a private policy-research center in Washington.
Better Than Best-Case?
O'Hanlon says the security on the ground today in Iraq "exceeds what I would have considered two years ago as the best-case, plausible outcome" for the surge in terms of the reduction of violence, the improvement in the Iraqi security forces, the cohesiveness of the Iraqi government, and the functioning of democracy.
"If we could have postulated that we could be at this place in 2009 when the surge began in early 2007, I would have considered this almost beyond our wildest dreams of what was possible," O'Hanlon says. "I don't want to sound too happy in my interpretation of where things stand, because Iraq had so many problems that it still faces a few more, and a couple that could be particularly incendiary over the next year -- which is part of why I like the Obama plan with its patience and gradualism in drawing down forces."
However, concerns about Obama's timeline -- as well as his plans for the size of the residual force -- have been raised by opponents of the war. They include two leaders of Obama's Democratic Party: Nancy Pelosi of California, the speaker of the House of Representatives; and Harry Reid of Nevada, the majority leader of the Senate.
O'Hanlon doesn't share their concerns, even though Obama's shifted somewhat to the right from the antiwar rhetoric of his presidential campaign. What O'Hanlon sees isn't an abandonment of Obama's own antiwar stance, but a president approaching the problem as he should: pragmatically.
However, a major problem remains, O'Hanlon says -- the instability in northern Iraq. But he says it's the only impediment to a smooth withdrawal of U.S. forces and a transition to complete Iraqi control over its territory. Resolving this problem may be difficult, he says.
O'Hanlon says the chief protagonists in the region are the local Kurdish government, with its peshmerga fighters, and the central government with a separate force. He says the contest could become a civil war in a competition for land and oil.
"Right now these forces are increasingly in close proximity to each other, contesting the same land, and we're going to have to help them figure out a peaceful way to alleviate these strains," O'Hanlon says. "I'm not saying that if this issue is addressed, then everything will be happy in Iraq from here on out, but I do think it is the last issue that has not received serious attention that could, very plausibly, erupt in violence if we don't help them find a way to address it."
Long, Tough Haul
Anthony Cordesman sees more possible impediments to a smooth withdrawal of U.S. forces, and therefore looks at the two dates cited by Obama as general goals, not specific targets. Cordesman specializes in security and foreign policy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, another Washington think tank.
Cordesman says too many problems -- not just trouble in the north -- can lead Obama to change his two target dates for withdrawal. And what's also not clear, he says, is whether staying longer would necessarily make the situation better.
In Cordesman's view, there are several possible surprises in Iraq, including the threat of a civil war, that might persuade Obama to keep U.S. forces there longer than he's planned. Like O'Hanlon, Cordesman expects Obama to be pragmatic.
One goal of the surge was to provide enough security to give the Iraqis time to resolve the differences that nearly led to an all-out civil war in 2006. The trouble is, Cordesman says, too many people seem to think that reconciliation could have happened overnight. In fact, he says that could take a decade.
"The idea that the United States is somehow going to phase smoothly out of a stable Iraq is something which is possible, but there aren't any historical precedents," Cordesman says. "Iraq has a great deal to change and a great deal to accomplish, and it isn't going to be done before the U.S. leaves -- and a lot of it wouldn't be done if the U.S. stayed."
As for resolving the persistent trouble in northern Iraq, Cordesman says that will depend to a great extent on how well the Kurds in the region get along with their Arab neighbors. The friction between the two ethnic groups is extremely old, so there's no telling how soon they might achieve an accord.
Or, says Cordesman, the Kurds and Arabs in the north may resort to living in enclaves.
"There's a real difference between the risk of a serious civil conflict between Kurd and Arab along a broad area, and working out differences, awkwardly and with occasional clashes over a period of years," Cordesman says. "I think we'll know one way or another whether the Kurds and Arabs can live with each other on a broad basis by the time the U.S. is scheduled to leave [at the end of 2011]. But it's always difficult to predict ethnic tensions, and every time people predict or analyze them as having disappeared, they have an ugly habit of rearing their heads again."
Further, Cordesman says, with the price of oil falling, reconciliation may be more elusive. Accommodating old opponents is hard enough when you have a lot of money, he says; it's even harder when you're struggling to get money.