President Obama announced Friday that the U.S. combat mission will end by Aug. 31, 2010, though a residual American force would remain in the country to train Iraqi forces. That has raised questions about just how long that U.S. force should stay, and how big it should be.
In his speech at Camp Lejeune, N.C., Obama said that violence in Iraq is down substantially, but the country is not yet secure. He said a "transitional force" of between 35,000 and 50,000 U.S. troops would remain to help Iraqis with training after the bulk of U.S. forces — some 100,000 troops — leave.
"After we remove our combat brigades, our mission will change from combat to supporting the Iraqi government and its security forces as they take the absolute lead in securing their country," Obama said.
But some Democrats question whether Obama shouldn't be bringing more troops home, faster. On the other side are those who worry combat troops are leaving too soon.
"The danger is that it creates renewed uncertainties among Iraqis," says Ohio State University's Col. Peter Mansoor, a former top aide to Gen. David Petraeus in Iraq. "What you don't want to do is have the security situation begin to spiral downward, with a worst case of a return to sectarian violence and civil war."
The point of leaving a residual force of tens of thousand of U.S. troops is to prevent that downward spiral. But this goal butts against another important deadline looming: Dec. 31, 2011. That's when all U.S. troops have to be out of Iraq, under an agreement signed by President Bush. Obama said Friday that he will honor that agreement.
However, in conversations this week with members of Congress, diplomats, military officials and others, no one said they think all U.S. troops will really be out of Iraq by December 2011.
Staying Past 2011
One defense official pointed out that U.S. troops are still in Kosovo and in South Korea, where fighting ended decades ago.
In the case of Iraq, where violence is still a daily problem, Mansoor says there is no question that U.S. forces will still be needed in a peacekeeping role past 2011.
"I do not believe that any realistic appraisal of the Iraqi army or the Iraqi police will state that they will be fully ready to take on all the counterterrorist missions in Iraq," Mansoor says. "Certainly, they will not be prepared to provide their own air support by that date."
Mansoor says he believes that as 2011 looms, the Status of Forces Agreement will have to be renegotiated, for reasons of both Iraqi security and long-term U.S. interests in the region. There may be support for that idea within Obama's own Cabinet.
Just after Obama finished speaking Friday, Defense Secretary Robert Gates held a conference call with reporters. Gates said it might be a good idea to keep a small number of U.S. forces in Iraq past the 2011 deadline.
"My own view would be that we should be prepared to have some very modest-sized presence for training and helping them with their new equipment and providing, perhaps, intelligence support and so on," Gates said.
That, however, would depend on the Iraqi government asking U.S. forces to stay on. So far, Gates said, "No such request has been made."