In the middle of the Vietnam War, aides to President Lyndon Johnson spoke of seeing "the light at the end of the tunnel" that is, until the Tet offensive early in 1968 showed the light to be that of an onrushing train. Are we finally seeing light at the end of the Iraq tunnel? It's messy, it's not what we were promised, and it's not over yet... but the basic outlines of the conflict's conclusion are emerging.
The Iraq war seems to be ending in what the Bush Administration will argue is victory. Granted, it's not the kind of fledging democracy that will spread like wildfire to neighboring nations in the Middle East. And Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's recent move against elements of the Sunni Awakening Councils, which have been instrumental in helping American forces secure order, could reignite violence. But it is amazing how much things have changed.
Casualties among both Iraqis and Americans are way down (the 13 Americans killed in July was the lowest monthly toll since the war began, 18 have died so far this month). The Iraq economy, fueled by oil production, is on the upswing. The Iraqi army is growing in size and skill. And, in perhaps the biggest surprise of all, Washington has acceded to Baghdad's wish and tentatively agreed to pull all of its combat troops out of Iraq by the end of 2011. Lieutenant General Lloyd Austin, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, said this week that al-Qaeda is "in disarray" in northern Iraq and largely out of Baghdad. "There is a sense of normalcy that's returning to Iraq," he told Pentagon reporters. Austin spoke of a recent visit to a major outdoor market in Mosul that was "overflowing" with Iraqis, something he said "would not have been possible just a couple of months ago."
Timing is everything in war, as in politics. The draft withdrawal agreement was signed on the eve of the Democratic convention and takes away a lever that anti-war activists had planned to use to push their party back into the White House. And while it's too soon to know how quickly U.S. troops will be leaving Iraq (and in what numbers), the tentative agreement opens the door for strengthening the American military presence in Afghanistan, where both parties agree it is desperately needed. Tens of thousands of U.S. troops will leave Iraq next year if present trends continue, Pentagon officials say. Defense Secretary Robert Gates may soon decide to divert a pair of 4,000-strong combat brigades now slated to head to Iraq next spring to Afghanistan instead.
Yet even if this is the beginning of the end, the war ended up being far from the "cakewalk" some war boosters predicted. More than five years after it began, there remain about 145,000 U.S. troops in Iraq. A total of 4,146 Americans military personnel have died, and 30,324 more have been wounded. There have been more than 100,000 violent Iraqi deaths. The war, even if it were to stop tomorrow, will likely end up costing U.S. taxpayers more than $1 trillion, including the cost of long-term care for wounded veterans.
It is important to acknowledge that the so-called deal remains unfinished, and, even when it is inked, will contain loopholes big enough to drive an M-1 tank through. First, while the Bush Administration has agreed to the 2011 deadline, there are other outstanding issues that must be settled before a final pact is concluded. Key among them is whether or not U.S. personnel in Iraq will be subject to any Iraqi jurisdiction if they are suspected of wrongdoing. U.S. officials initially wanted such protection for U.S. contractors as well as soldiers, but the Iraqis have been steadily peeling away at such immunity. Once these issues are settled, the pact will have to be approved by Iraq's fractious parliament.
Secondly, the agreement applies only to combat troops, meaning about half of the U.S. military personnel now in Iraq could remain there in supporting and training roles beyond 2011.
Finally, the draft agreement could be derailed by an upsurge in violence. The Iraqis have been telling reporters it contains specific dates, including June 30, 2009, for the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraqi cities and towns, and December 31, 2011, for the withdrawal of all U.S. combat forces from the country. But Bush Administration officials, having been burned repeatedly since launching the invasion for brandishing overly optimistic predictions, now seem allergic to setting such precise deadlines. They instead prefer to label them "aspirational time horizons." Given its track record at predicting the course of events in Iraq since March 18, 2003, that's probably wise.