Almost everyone now agrees there has been great progress in Iraq. The question is what to do about it.
Democrats led by Barack Obama want to take a peace dividend and withdraw all combat brigades by May 2010. Republicans like John McCain want to keep troops in Iraq until conditions on the ground signal the time is ripe. And now the Iraqi prime minister, Nuri al-Maliki, has endorsed a timetable for withdrawal, though he seems to favor a somewhat slower pace than the Democrats propose.
If the Iraqi government tells us to leave, we should go. But this would be a bad deal for both Iraqis and Americans. Iraq is indeed much more secure than it was two years ago, thus it seems safe to suggest timing goals for significant withdrawals. Yet having recently returned from a research trip to Iraq, we are convinced that a total withdrawal of combat troops any time soon would be unwise. (The American military arranged the logistics for our visit, and Foreign Affairs magazine will publish another article about our trip.)
Violence in Iraq declined because the key combatants were either defeated in the field or agreed to cease-fires. These cease-fires were not accidents or temporary breathing spells. They were a systematic response to a new strategic landscape created by 2006’s sectarian bloodletting, the American surge last summer, the defeat of Al Qaeda’s forces in Anbar Province and the decision by battered Sunni insurgents and Shiite militias that fighting no longer served their interests.
This op-ed is based upon an essay appearing in the September/October issue of Foreign Affairs.