The June 30 Deadline

This week’s withdrawal of American troops from Iraq’s urban centers is not as game changing as it seems. The real test of Iraq’s stability will come as we drastically reduce our number of soldiers in the country over the coming year.

Like any other time in Iraq these days, the first half of 2009 has been fingernail-biting time. U.S. troop drawdowns have begun, American forces are nearly "out of the cities," and some elements of the Iraqi resistance have sought to carry out high-profile and deadly attacks with tragic and very sad loss of life.

However the June 30 deadline will probably not be the most difficult, dicey or dangerous event we go through over the coming months in Iraq. It is always hazardous to predict the future in Iraq-especially with an optimistic perspective-but while I am concerned about some other looming issues in that country, I do not expect the current transition to cause huge problems. There are several reasons for this:

--Despite repeated worries, 2009 has NOT seen an uptick in violence. There have been several bursts of media coverage this year that have predicted more violence in Iraq. These are not fabrications; the flurry of coverage always begins with actual attacks that seem to augur a scary return to the past in that troubled land. This happened in February, again a couple months later, and again in recent weeks. But when the smoke clears and one looks at trends, it tends to turn out that there is no net increase. This is hardly meant to be a rosy assessment of Iraq today; the new normal there is a violent semi-peace of three hundred to five hundred war-related civilian deaths per month. But things have not been getting worse, and even if June winds up a bit more violent than May was, the increase in violence will probably not be statistically or strategically all that significant.

--U.S. departure from the cities is not a single event. In fact we have been leaving all year-and were doing so even in 2008 to an extent. Ever since the Basra, Sadr City and Amarah campaigns of 2008, the overall story line in Iraq has been one of a gradually reducing U.S. role. To be sure, American troops are still important in certain key functions (flying UAVs, providing mentoring and strategic advice, helping in commando raids as well as the intelligence efforts that set them up, training Iraqi forces, helping with logistics). But they have been gradually doing less, and in the course of 2009 that process has accelerated. If it were going to lead to a big increase in violence, we probably would have already seen that increase.

--U.S. troops are not really leaving the cities. While information here is a bit hard to come by, given the (Iraqi) politics of the situation, it appears that American forces are still helping man some of the so-called joint security stations. They are also maintaining large bases on the outer edges of cities in a number of key places like Baghdad and Mosul, beyond city center but within broader urban areas.

In short, the June 30 milestone seems a more gradual and far less abrupt or absolute change than many would suppose. Next year's transitions could be bigger news, as we downsize from one hundred thirty thousand to fifty thousand uniformed troops just as Iraqis hold new elections and potentially form a new coalition government. This week's transitions, however, will probably go just fine.

 

Michael O'Hanlon is the Sydney Stein, Jr. chair and director of research for the 21st century defense initiative at the Brookings Institution.