The Promised Withdrawal from Iraq

President Obama today made a critical change in our nation’s foreign policy in Iraq, reaffirming his full commitment to the Status of Forces Agreement negotiated by the Bush administration late last year. Obama’s announced he will remove all U.S. combat troops from Iraq by August 31, 2010 and honor the 2011 SOFA deadline for a complete withdrawal of all U.S. forces. This shows he remains committed to the promise he made to the American people during his campaign—that he would finally act to end this needless, mindless, senseless war.

During his campaign, Obama promised to remove U.S. combat troops within 16 months, leaving behind a residual force with limited responsibilities. His announcement today largely fulfills these pledges. While the 19-month deadline is an extension of his earlier estimate, it still offers a strong commitment to remove U.S. forces from the country. His plan will benefit both the United States and Iraq, moving both nations toward a new era of responsible engagement in the Middle East.

By setting a deadline for withdrawing combat forces, Obama has sent an unmistakable message that the United States fully supports a sovereign Iraq and is serious about upholding the principles set out in the SOFA. That agreement promised that U.S. troops would leave Iraqi cities by June 30, 2009, and vacate the country by the end of 2011. Obama’s plan would see all combat troops out of Iraq well before this deadline, leaving only a residual transition force in place until the agreement runs out.

By strengthening our commitment to leave, and setting an earlier deadline for the end of combat operations, Obama has also taken an essential step in building trust with the Iraqi government and people. Even after the signing of the SOFA, some Iraqis publicly doubted whether the United States would leave the country. Obama’s announcement today is a definitive sign that he does not intend to keep forces in Iraq indefinitely, and will work toward fully turning over our responsibilities to the Iraqi government and security forces.

This plan will also create momentum for Iraqi political progress. The set deadline will put Iraqi leaders and sectarian actors on notice that they must pursue meaningful reconciliation. Last month’s provincial elections were carried out without major incident, yet signals from members of the Sunni Awakening—the tribal groups whose support and manpower were a key cause of the drop in violence over the last few years—that they might resort to violence if they determined that election fraud had taken place, indicate that Iraqis still have work to do in this area. Obama’s announcement means that the Iraqis must take on the burden of ensuring the continuation of a peaceful political process.

Obama’s announcement is the start of a meaningful shift in the American role in Iraq. The president was careful to note that a U.S. military withdrawal will enable a more comprehensive U.S. engagement in the region. As combat troops leave, we will increasingly transfer to a tripartite support mission: pursuing the remnants of Al Qaeda in Iraq, training the Iraqi security forces to carry out missions, and protecting American personnel who remain in the country. This modified mission, along with the redeployment of combat troops, will reduce the stress on our already overburdened servicemen and women, paving the way for a full withdrawal at the end of 2011.

The clock is already ticking—the end of August 2010 is just 18 months away.

The majority of Americans (69 percent in a recent CNN/Opinion Research Corporation poll) support removing most American forces from Iraq. Fortunately, this country, and our service men and women overseas, finally have a president who is committed to the same ends.

Lawrence J. Korb is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress. To read more about the Center’s policy proposals on Iraq please go to the War in Iraq page of our website.