For the U.S. troops pulling out of Iraq, Wednesday's news of the string of attacks across the country must have come as a kick in the solar plexus. Despite the soldiers' hard work and sacrifice for more than 7½ years, it took the enemy hardly any time at all to reassert its presence. What was it all for, a soldier may well ask?
For Iraqis, the question is not philosophical but existential: Who will protect them now? If there was any doubt about the competence of their own security forces, the attacks have confirmed the worst. More such spasms of violence will inevitably lead to calls for the remaining U.S. forces to drop their non-combat status and ride to the rescue. How will they respond?
Bombings in at least 13 cities across the length and breadth of Iraq have killed more than 70 people, and wounded hundreds of others. In different cities, authorities have blamed al-Qaeda, Iraqi Sunni groups or some combination thereof. Whoever is to blame, the message they're sending is not subtle: now that the Americans are leaving, we can strike anywhere, at any time.
The Obama Administration's decision to pull out combat troops this month was, at least publicly, predicated on the ability of Iraqi security forces to protect civilians and take the fight to the insurgents. But the Iraqi police and military are scarcely able to protect themselves: many of yesterday's bombings struck security targets.
The timing of the attacks is an especially damning indictment of the quality of the Iraqi forces. They have known for months that the U.S. pullout would end in late August and that al-Qaeda and its allies would use the opportunity to strike hard. In other words, the Iraqi forces were on the highest possible state of alert for attacks. Yet that wasn't good enough to prevent the enemy from mounting the most audacious and ambitious operation it has ever attempted.
The attacks exposed as a fiction the Obama Administration's long-standing claim that the Iraqi forces were ready and able to take over from U.S. troops. While that claim may have played well with war-weary Americans, Iraqis have never been fooled: only last week, the commander of the Iraqi military said his forces would not be fully ready until 2020.
The bombings don't automatically mean all (or even much) of Iraq is once again in the grip of the insurgency. But they suggest the country is in for a great deal more violence in the months ahead.
The quandary for the White House is whether it can restrict the 50,000 remaining U.S. troops in Iraq to non-combat functions when the gains achieved by force of American arms are at risk, or should it put them directly in harm's way. President Obama may not have announced that the mission had been accomplished, but his countrymen won't take kindly to being told it is incomplete.