My kids—the oldest is 13—seem to think that anything that happened in the pre-iPad era is ancient history and therefore of little relevance to them. The American public and politicos must tacitly agree. How else to explain the sudden disappearance of Iraq from our public discourse?
Remember Iraq? That country we invaded in 2003? The one where more than 4,400 American soldiers have lost their lives and more than 32,000 have been wounded? The one where we've spent nearly $800 billion?
As recently as 2008, Iraq dominated American politics. But now it's a nonstory. Other subjects have pushed it off the front page, from the economy and healthcare to Afghanistan, Tunisia and Egypt.
In a way, Iraq has been a victim of its own success. Because it seems to be doing relatively well, policymakers have shifted their attention to more urgent concerns. But there is a danger that our present inattention could undo the progress that so many have struggled so hard to attain.
Iraq has made impressive gains since 2006, when it was on the brink of all-out civil war. Violence is down more than 90% even as the number of U.S. troops has fallen to 50,000 from 170,000. The Iraqi political system continues to function with the recent inauguration of a new coalition government led by returning Prime Minister Nouri Maliki. And the economy is picking up steam, as contracts are signed with foreign companies that can tap the country's vast oil reserves.
But there remain disquieting reminders of darker days. More than 250 Iraqis died in terrorist attacks in January, up from 151 in December, with most of those attacks attributed to Al Qaeda in Iraq, a group whose obituary has been written more than once. Roughly as many civilians died in Iraq last year as in Afghanistan — about 2,400. Remind me again which country is at peace?
The political situation remains as uncertain as the security situation; indeed, the two are closely connected. The formation of a new government occurred only after an agonizing nine-month deadlock in 2010. Iyad Allawi, who won the most votes, lost the prime minister's office and accepted as a consolation prize leadership of a new strategic policy council with undefined powers. His primarily Sunni Muslim backers remain convinced they will be frozen out of power by the Shiite prime minister. Maliki, in turn, is deeply suspicious of Sunni groups such as the Sons of Iraq, as well as of his Shiite rivals in cleric Muqtada Sadr's movement and the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq. Shiites and Sunnis are united chiefly by their desire to curb Kurdish autonomy, a prospect that fills the Kurds with understandable dread.
In short, Iraq remains a volcano. It has been capped for the moment but could erupt again. Especially because the most effective cap—a U.S. military presence—is due to be removed at the end of the year.
Prospects of a security accord that would keep American forces in Iraq past 2011 are rapidly dimming. Maliki, who spent long years of exile in Syria and Iran—no fans of the United States—has always been suspicious of America. He would certainly prefer not to have tens of thousands of U.S. troops under a four-star general looking over his shoulder. President Obama, for his part, came to office pledging to withdraw from Iraq and, judging by his State of the Union address, appears determined to do just that.
Unless both men change course and soon, the mission now performed by 50,000 U.S. troops will be left to about 1,000 diplomats and perhaps 100 soldiers in an Office of Security Cooperation, with thousands of mostly non-American contractors providing security and logistical support.
The State Department plans to set up a network of consulates, training centers and branch offices throughout Iraq, but a new report from the Senate Foreign Relations Committee warns that it will be very difficult to maintain much of a presence outside Baghdad without the support currently of the U.S. military, which provides everything from helicopters to "quick reaction forces" in case of trouble.
Even if the embassy carries out the current plan perfectly, many of the important functions still performed by the American troops will fall into abeyance. For example, U.S. troops conduct joint patrols with Iraqi troops and Kurdish peshmerga fighters along the ill-defined border with the Kurdish region to prevent an outbreak of fighting. That is not a role the State Department can or will perform.
All of this is worrisome because if there is any lesson in American military history, it is that the longer U.S. troops stay in a post-conflict area, the greater the odds of a successful transition to democracy. The iconic examples are Germany, Japan and South Korea. When U.S. forces leave prematurely, on the other hand, the odds of a bad outcome greatly increase, whether in the post-Civil War South, post-World War I Germany, Haiti in the 1930s and 1990s, or Somalia in the 1990s. Foreign peacekeepers are still in Bosnia and Kosovo long after the end of their conflicts. Does anyone think that Iraq is more stable than those postage-stamp-size countries on the periphery of Europe?
Iraq may very well muddle through no matter what. It has so far. But I would be a lot more confident about its future if we were making a bigger commitment. It would be a tragedy if, after years of struggle and sacrifice, we were to lose Iraq now—when we are so close to a successful outcome—because of our own attention deficit disorder.
Max Boot is a contributing editor to Opinion and a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. He is writing a history of guerrilla warfare and terrorism.
This article appears in full on CFR.org by permission of its original publisher. It was originally available here.