After $748 billion and seven years President Obama declared the combat phase of the Iraq war over, and said a new phase, one in which US troops take on an advisory role rather than a leading one, has begun.
About 4,400 US soldiers and hundreds of thousands of Iraqi civilians have been killed since the US invaded Iraq in March 2003.
Speaking from the Oval Office Tuesday, the president said the changeover signified at least two benchmarks: the first being that the US will no longer be the tip of the spear, and the second, that the shift shows the US is on track to stick with its promise to withdraw all forces from Iraq by the end of next year.
“The United States has paid a huge price to put the future of Iraq in the hands of its people,” Obama said. “Now, it is time to turn the page.”
However, despite the ostensible milestone, the official division of labor between the US and Iraq leaves some grey areas.
In a speech to troops at Fort Bliss in El Paso, Texas, earlier in the day, Obama indicated that an advisory role does not necessarily mean a less rigorous one. “The work that continues is absolutely critical: providing training and assistance to Iraqi security forces because there’s still violence in Iraq, and they’re still learning how to secure their country the way they need to,” he said. He also noted that protecting US civilians, aid workers and diplomats would remain part of the job description for members of the American armed services.
Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio) has been skeptical of this dual role for some time. On August 19 the congressmen said remaining in Iraq while avoiding a combat role is impossible, and the change in military posture is an illusion.
“This is not the end of the war; this is simply a new stage in the campaign to lull the American people into accepting an open-ended presence in Iraq,” Kucinich said.
Further, although the official military stance has changed in Iraq, private contractors are increasingly taking on security-related tasks. This situation has proven prickly from an accountability as well as an accounting point of view, as exemplified by the private contractor formerly known as Blackwater’s role in the 2007 killing of 17 Iraqi civilians. Despite this, the number of private contractors in Iraq is expected to double in 2011.
“Our timetables are getting out ahead of Iraqi reality,” Ryan C. Crocker, a former ambassador to Iraq, said in an interview with The New York Times.
Timelines aside, approximately 50,000 troops remain in Iraq, and the reduction in forces is somewhat counterbalanced by the increase in American troops in Afghanistan, an effort that accounts for 62 percent of the funds allocated to Iraq and Afghanistan, according to a July report by the Congressional Research Service. The effort to move Afghanistan towards a more self-sufficient role has been stymied by corruption as well as an insufficient number of personnel available to train Afghan security forces. There have also been suggestions by Gen. David Petreaus that leaving Afghanistan in 2011 will not be an outright exit, but rather a gradual tapering.
Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wisconsin), who voted again going to war, applauded Obama for “sticking to his redeployment timetable.” But Feingold added that the US should “reduce our troop level as quickly and safely as possible to ease the strain on our military and our budget.”
“The cost of our military operation in Iraq—more than $700 billion to date—continues to plunge us deeper into debt,” Feingold said in a statement he issued following Obama’s Oval Office address. “Not one penny of the cost has been offset and it had just added to our budget deficits. We can help get our fiscal house in order by ending our military involvement in Iraq. Delaying our final troop redeployments for another year will add tens of billions more dollars to our massive debt.”
Despite the continued war focus – and the increased funding for Afghanistan – Obama also said on Tuesday that the reduced role in Iraq will free the country to focus on the economy.
“Today, our most urgent task is to restore our economy, and put the millions of Americans who have lost their jobs back to work” he said, adding, “This will be difficult. But in the days to come, it must be our central mission as a people, and my central responsibility as President.”
Read a Truthout analysis of the mainstream media’s portrayal of the Iraq “withdrawal” here.