Leaving Iraq

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New York Times – Editorial: On Tuesday the American combat mission in Iraq — a war that should never have been fought — officially ends. President Obama deserves credit for promising the withdrawal and for sticking to it. But America’s responsibilities in Iraq will not end now.

The New York Times

Editorial

On Tuesday the American combat mission in Iraq — a war that should never have been fought — officially ends. President Obama deserves credit for promising the withdrawal and for sticking to it. But America’s responsibilities in Iraq will not end now.

Even with the departure of combat forces, 50,000 troops will remain as advisers through 2011. And American officials have plenty of work ahead — helping and goading Iraqi politicians to get on with building a reasonably democratic and stable country.

A White House spokesman said this week that Mr. Obama will use an Oval Office address on Tuesday — only the second of his presidency — to talk about Iraq and the “fact that more of our efforts and focus” are on Afghanistan. Americans are increasingly skeptical, indeed despairing, about that war. The president needs to do much more to explain the stakes and his strategy.

Does counterinsurgency still offer the best chance for driving back the Taliban? What are Americans supposed to think about President Hamid Karzai’s misbehaviors? How does Mr. Obama plan to get Pakistan to stop playing a double game, and take on the extremists?

Mr. Obama also needs to talk about Iraq and remind Americans that after seven years of fighting, this country still has a responsibility and a strategic interest in helping Iraq succeed. The Washington bureaucracy, which we fear is moving on, needs to hear that message loud and clear.

So do Iraqis. So much of Iraqi politics is a zero-sum game. Five months after national elections, Sunni and Shiite leaders still cannot agree on forming a government. And the list of unfinished business — an oil law, the future of Kirkuk — goes on. If they think Washington is disengaging, that will only get worse.

Iraq’s Kurds will be listening closely; the United States has been their defender since the gulf war. If they fear abandonment, they could do something foolish and dangerous — like making a grab for disputed territory. Mr. Obama needs to reaffirm a commitment to Iraq’s sovereignty to discourage Iran and other meddlers.

It may be decades before we have a full accounting of this disastrous war, but this milestone calls for an interim reckoning. The overthrow of Saddam Hussein’s murderous rule and the stirrings of democratic politics are all positive outcomes. But they are overshadowed by overwhelming negatives.

President George W. Bush invaded Iraq in 2003 looking for weapons of mass destruction, and defended that rationale long after it was clear that those weapons were not there. America’s credibility has still not recovered. The war cost the lives of more than 4,400 Americans, as well as those of an estimated 100,000 Iraqi civilians, and hundreds of billions of dollars.

The Iraq war also, disastrously, shifted attention and resources away from the far more important fight in Afghanistan. The Taliban — routed by the United States and Afghan forces after 9/11 — quickly regained the battlefield momentum after the Pentagon and White House lost interest. The two wars have grievously overtaxed American forces.

Though the extreme violence in Iraq has abated, insurgents have increased attacks in recent months, challenging Iraq’s army and police as they assume more responsibility for security. (The Americans will help only if asked.) The political impasse is making Iraqis question whether democracy is worth the price. That is chilling.

Iraq’s future is now in Iraqis’ hands, as it should be. This country cannot afford to walk away.

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