The Stryker armored vehicles of the U.S. Army's Fourth Brigade, Second Infantry Division have just rumbled out of Iraq. Their trip from Baghdad to Kuwait was only 300 miles long, but symbolically the distance was much greater.
The Fourth Brigade is the last combat brigade to pull out of Iraq as the U.S. military--having lost 4,415 soldiers (and still counting) and turned around a war effort that was on the verge of failure--hustles to draw down to 50,000 troops by the end of August. "Operation Iraqi Freedom," that legacy of the Bush administration, is ending. On Sept. 1, "Operation New Dawn," the product of hope and change, takes its place.
Going forward, most remaining U.S. troops will not serve in "combat" but will be part of what the military calls "advise and assist brigades." The distinction is largely artificial, crafted to show that the promised American withdrawal is on schedule. Fifty thousand soldiers will retain substantial combat capacity whether they are designated as "advisers," "combatants" or "tourists." And some of them, especially in elite antiterrorism units, will continue to operate at the pointy end of the spear.
Nevertheless, this transition offers an opportunity to reflect on what has been accomplished--and what still needs to be done. The debit side of the ledger is plain to see: the dollars spent, the lives shattered. American fatalities are measured in the thousands, Iraqis in the tens of thousands, even hundreds of thousands. Yet, like the Londoners of World War II, the Iraqis have shown a wonderful resiliency in the face of carnage.
The economy is growing as oil production is rising and will soon exceed prewar levels. Electricity generation, after many setbacks, is already 40% above the prewar level (according to the Brookings Institution's Iraq Index). Every Iraqi I've encountered during my recent visits there seems to have at least one cell phone, usually two or three. The streets of Baghdad are again crowded. Amusement parks, restaurants, even liquor stores are open after dark.
Above all, the terrible fear of Saddam and his secret police, of the knock in the night, has been lifted. Numerous radio and TV shows, newspapers and magazines air a variety of viewpoints, and politicians from a multiplicity of parties compete in free and fair elections.
Americans can take pride in how Iraq has developed. But have we truly "won" the war? That is a hard question to answer.
Opponents of the war effort--including Barack Obama and Joe Biden--once had an interest in saying that the war was unwinnable. Now they claim that we should sit back, relax and prepare for a smooth on-time departure. If only.
Iraq has made tremendous strides, but it still has a long way to go. Violence has fallen more than 90% since 2006. Al Qaeda in Iraq has lost most of its leadership. The Jaish al Mahdi, Moqtada al-Sadr's militia, has been silenced. But this uneasy peace is still broken by too many acts of terrorism. One still reads headlines like this one, from earlier this week: "61 Killed in Bomb Attack on Iraqi Army Recruits." Baghdad is considerably safer than it once was but is still more dangerous than Kabul, where I've also visited recently. Iraq had clean elections in March but still has no new government. Investors are holding off committing funds, the Iranians are licking their chops, and various militias are nervously fingering the triggers of their AK-47s.
Iraq's future is still to be determined: Will it continue on the path of prosperity and democracy? Will it emerge as a key American ally in the Middle East? Or will it regress into civil war or dictatorship? U.S. forces still have a vital mission: to ensure that a newly sobered Iraq does not fall off the wagon and once again imbibe the deadly brew of ethno-sectarian violence.
The primary remaining military mission is to continue providing support to the Iraqi security forces. There are now 440,000 Iraqi police and 220,000 Iraqi soldiers, but they still lack the capacity to defend their own borders. The U.S. plans to deliver M-1 tanks and F-16 fighters to Iraq, but it will be many years before the Iraqis can operate such sophisticated weapons systems on their own. In the meantime they cannot even control their own air space; that will remain the job of American personnel. The U.S. Navy will continue to safeguard Iraq's main oil export terminal near the southern city of Basra.
The remaining political mission is even more important--to reassure all sides in Iraq's fractious politics that their opponents will not resort to the car bomb or the powerdrill-through-the-temple to get their way. Iraq is still recovering from the trauma of internecine bloodletting--as are, for example, Bosnia and Kosovo. In Bosnia it has been 15 years since the guns went silent; in Kosovo 11 years. In both places thousands of foreign troops remain to safeguard a fragile peace.
It would be the height of hubris--the kind once displayed by George W. Bush's prematurely proclaimed "Mission Accomplished"--to suggest that Iraq, a country of more than 25 million, needs less help in its post-conflict transition than did the micro-states of the former Yugoslavia.
Yet as things currently stand, all U.S. forces are supposed to depart Iraq by the end of 2011. This prospect fills all sensible Iraqis with dread. As Lt. Gen. Babakir Zebari, the chief of staff of the Iraqi Joint Forces, recently said: "If I were asked about the withdrawal, I would say to politicians: the U.S. army must stay until the Iraqi army is fully ready in 2020."
Mr. Zebari is a Kurd, part of a long-prosecuted minority, so he has particularly acute reasons for fear. Yet I've heard similar sentiments expressed by most Iraqis I've met, Sunnis and Shiites alike.
There is a pressing need for a new U.S.-Iraq agreement that will allow a considerable force (10,000 to 20,000 troops) to remain in Iraq for years to come. But that accord cannot be negotiated until a new Iraqi government is seated. That, in turn, will require more muscular diplomacy than the Obama administration has hitherto displayed. At least the ineffectual Christopher Hill is leaving as ambassador. His replacement, Jim Jeffreys, has actually served in Iraq. He will have to engage in Iraq's political process in ways that Mr. Hill did not, and he will need the kind of high-level engagement from the Obama administration that Mr. Hill did not receive.
The worst combat is over, at least for the time being. But America must still fight for Iraq's future if the sacrifices made by so many heroes, Iraqi and American alike, are not to be in vain.
Mr. Boot is a 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.