Why We're Withdrawing From Iraq

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Welcome to Politics Bites, where every afternoon at It's A Free Country, we bring you the unmissable quotes from the morning's political conversations on WNYC. Today on The Brian Lehrer ShowFred Kaplan writer of the War Stories column for Slate and author of 1959: the Year Everything Changed, talked about the news that the Obama administration will pull troops out of Iraq by the end of the year.

'They just don't want us there anymore'

The United States has meant to withdraw its troops from Iraq by December 31st, 2011, for years. What was surprising about President Obama's announcement last week was that we're really going to keep that promise.

The Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) signed in 2008 by President George W. Bush set the date, but popular perception among insiders and observers was that this deadline was given with a wink: It could and probably would get pushed back, and when or if the day finally came it probably wouldn't see the complete withdrawal of troops.

Fred Kaplan said that those decisions were ultimately up to Iraqis, not Americans. That we're leaving now is as much a sign of their will as it is ours.

[SOFA] says this may be revised, cancelled, and if it is it has to be cancelled by the Iraqi parliament...A majority of the Iraqi parliament and the Iraqi people just don't want us there anymore.

Twiddling their thumbs

Kaplan noted that there haven't been any U.S. combat forces in Iraqi cities, villages, or towns for about a year and a half, and that there haven't been combat brigades anywhere in the country for six months. The prolonged absence of combat personnel bolsters the argument for leaving. So does a glowing statistical milestone.

About 95 percent of American troops there are waiting to leave. They're twiddling their thumbs; there isn't much to do. Right now we have the lowest number of U.S. and Iraqi civilian fatalities and of armed attacks in Iraq—all three of those statistics—since the war began.

Unrealistic critiques

Republicans are lining up with gripes about the withdrawal: We should be there longer; this is being done for political reasons, not strategic ones; we should ensure troop "immunity" first. Michelle Bachmann argues that we should get our money back from the Iraqis.

Kaplan flatly rejected all of these complaints. Negotiators for the U.S. dating back to the Bush administration have not been able to find reasons or resources to stay, and that's that.

The kinds of premises you'd have to accept for these critiques...Let's not even talk about Bachmann, this idiocy of wanting Iraqis to pay us back. We've spent a lot of money compensating Iraqis for damage that we've done.

Are we really leaving?

The kinds of numbers for a continued presence initially sought by negotiators was somewhere in the neighborhood of 10,000 troops. Kaplan said the real number is considerably lower.

Those hoping for the U.S. military's complete and total absence from Iraq will be disappointed; the U.S. has a military presence in almost every country, at least for embassy security, and Iraq will be no different. There will also be a small transitional force that's not responsible for security. Kaplan explained:

There's still gonna be trainers, logistics people...It's not like we're going to be gone, but we're not going to be fighting there. There will be about 3,000 people, mainly contractors to protect embassy officials and remaining facilities, but that's fairly standard stuff.

Iraq's legacy

How will history record the legacy of this near-decade-long war? Kaplan told Brian Lehrer to ask him in 30 years.

But maybe we should be looking to the past, not the future. In a way, the war's legacy had been decided before it began, at least by the people Kaplan talked to at the time.

I know plenty of military people who thought this was a vast strategic error from the beginning, and that it diverted forces from Afghanistan where we really could have ended it right away.