The final soldiers of the 4th Stryker Brigade of the 2nd Infantry Division crossed the border into Kuwait today. Six thousand more U.S. troops are scheduled to depart Iraq by the end of the month, leaving 50,000 American servicemembers in the country. This orderly drawdown is one bright spot in a difficult region, and it’s important that the United States complete the troop withdrawals on schedule. Yet the departure of the 4th Stryker Brigade is not a decisive “mission accomplished” moment in Iraq.
When President Barack Obama took office he promised to withdraw U.S. combat troops from Iraq by the end of August 2010, leaving no more than 50,000 U.S. forces in the country. This was one of Obama’s core campaign planks and key to ending the United States’ troubled history in Iraq. Today’s withdrawal of the last full U.S. combat brigade is not the final step in meeting that goal, but it indicates that the president is on track to fulfill his commitment to the American people.
Moreover, the final full combat brigade’s withdrawal shows the Iraqi people and the world that the United States has no desire to remain an occupying power. This is particularly significant because the United States is struggling to reverse Taliban momentum in a nearly nine-year war in Afghanistan and Muslim publics increasingly demonstrate a loss of confidence in the United States. The Pew Research Center noted earlier this year that U.S. opinion is “slipping in some Muslim countries where opinion had edged up in 2009.” In Egypt, for example, the U.S. favorability rating dropped from 42 percent last year to 33 percent this year. Jordan has a similar story: U.S. approval dipped from 31 percent to 26 percent over the same period.
But while efficiently pulling out our troops is important in helping reverse these trends, the last full U.S. combat brigade’s departure from Iraq is not a sea-change in U.S. military efforts there. For all practical purposes, the United States’ active combat role in Iraq ended last year. U.S. combat forces withdrew from Iraqi cities to American bases by June 30, 2009 in accordance with the terms of the U.S.-Iraq Security Agreement signed by the George W. Bush administration and Prime Minister Nouri Al Maliki. U.S. forces have been available to aid their Iraqi counterparts over the last year, but they are no longer in the lead and are not permitted to take on combat missions in the country unless specifically requested to do so by the Iraqis.
Neither is this withdrawal the end of the United States’ military partnership with Iraq. The six brigades scheduled to stay in Iraq after the end of the month will function as advisory and assistance brigades, or AABs, which partner with rather than lead their Iraqi counterparts. Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman noted last year that AABs carry more field-grade officers, engineers, military police, and civil affairs professionals than combat brigades.
Yet while they are not classified as trigger-pullers, these troops still maintain significant combat capabilities and are fully capable of assisting our Iraqi partners upon request. U.S. Forces-Iraq, the U.S. military subunified command in Iraq, has noted that the AABs “will conduct coordinated counterterrorism missions and protect ongoing civilian and military efforts within Iraq.”
The United States should celebrate the 4th Stryker Brigade’s withdrawal for what it is: proof that the United States is meeting its commitments to the Iraqi government and the Obama administration is fulfilling its promises to the American public. But major challenges lie ahead for the Iraqi government and people, and only meaningful political reconciliation will guarantee a stable future for the country. As the United States creeps closer to the Security Agreement’s decisive deadline—the requirement that U.S. forces leave the country by December 31, 2011—it’s up to the Iraqis to achieve that reconciliation.
Lawrence J. Korb is a Senior Fellow and Laura Conley is a Special Assistant for National Security and International Policy at American Progress.