Today, U.S. soldier in Iraq, a force about 131,000, left Iraqi urban areas to great Iraqi jubilation. A final withdrawal is scheduled for eighteen months from now, and the good faith with which U.S. soldiers are leaving Iraqi cities offers some reason to expect that the final withdrawal deadline will have meaning as well.
U.S. troops deaths have been at a sustained low level, with some every month, but fewer than one a day in every month, since May 2008. The total U.S. death sine March 2003 when the war began is 4,318. If the war continues at is current rhythm, or winds down as U.S. troops grow less involved and withdraw, the total number of Iraq War deaths is likely to not exceed 5,000.
The primary missions of U.S. troops in Iraq these days appears to be to protect the U.S. force still there, to prepare the civilian government and its military to take over control, to suppress and discourage violence that gets out of hand, and to intercept and remove from the scene, foreign fighters, more or less in that order. More succinctly the goal is a retreat in good order. The current agreement on the status of forces in Iraq gives the Iraqi civilian government more power and respect, narrows the immunities of U.S. troops and their contractors, and reduces the frequency of potentially deadly direct interactions between U.S. troops and the Iraqi people.
Broad ambitions of state building have been replaced by narrow ambitions of training wheel removal. Notions of Iraq as a regional model of an Islamic democratic state, an important oil trade partner for the U.S., a center for a middle class economy as opposed to an oil economy, an ethnically diverse melting pot, or a long term trusted military ally of the U.S. have all faded. Iraq's basic infrastructure and economy have still not recovered to a pre-invasion state of affairs.
The withdrawal of U.S. troops over the next eighteen months isn't expected to be complete, high profile or precipitous. There may be 30,000 or so troops left when it is over.
The Iraqi civilian government is no world model, but, it appears that it is close to being able to stand on its own two feet after six and a quarter years of occupation. Most of the "Coalition of the Willing" has left already. President Obama's stated policy is to leave Iraq so that the military can refocus on Afghanistan, where we have been at war even longer, since late 2001.
The old regime is routed. The Iraqi military has had almost all of its heavy weapons destroyed or denied to it, leaving it little more than a national SWAT team. While violence and suicide bombings are still routine, some semblance of order has been restored to most of the country, outside select flash points, symbolic and urban centers, the tail end of campaigns of ethnic cleansing in neighborhoods that have already crossed tipping points, and violence directed at impotent minorities like gays, journalists, independent politicians and intellectuals.
Refugee flight and internal ethnic violence from earlier in the conflict has sent the Iraqi middle class most abroad, with large clumps of it in Syria and Jordan, and has dramatically increased ethnic segregation within the country and within neighborhoods in the largest cities. A few large cities like Baghdad have recently walled neighborhoods in which ethnic minorities have taken shelter, akin to airlift era Berlin, or Warsaw's early Nazi era Jewish quarter, and these may even turn out to be stable enclaves. Similar enclaves have endured at various times and places throughout the last last few thousand years. But it does not look likely that these cities will return to the widespread ethnic integration geographically that existed before the Iraq War that is winding down today.
The diaspora of middle class Iraqis bears watching in the years to come. Despite Saddam Hussein's genuine and brutal faults as an authoritarian leader, his regime had created, particularly in Baghdad, one of the largest economic centers in the Middle East in industries other than oil, which had been supported by a large, multi-ethnic educated class of middle class business people, professionals and skilled government workers who operated in some semblance of law and good order. This middle class has been thrust into exile for the most part, living in privation, often abandoning major components of their wealth like homes, land and large furnishings, prostituting their daughters and wives, and interrupting the educations of their younger children in favor of saving their lives from Iraqi militias. But, these most promising people of Iraq could also lead an economic renaissance for Jordan, Syria and other places they have congregated, if they can manage to use the resources that they could salvage, their skills and local good will to get back on their feet.
While the division of Iraq into true sovereign states seems unlikely in the near future, Kurdistan has been autonomous and relatively functional, to the point of being a de facto state of its own, since the conflict began.
The Southeast, meanwhile, right up to Baghdad itself, has become are fairly cohesive Shi'ite political units, even though sometimes brutal internal fights for political control continue between the political parties there. They have been largely unoccupied by foreign troops (previously led by the British) for many months now. This largest faction in the national government, which also has control in many provincial governments which it seems inclined to exercise appears to have generally favorable inclinations towards its better established Shi'ite democratic theocracy to the East, Iran.
While late to the game, Sunni Iraqis in the West appear to have come to terms with the legitimacy of the regime and secured some sort of meaningful self-government and control in the West. These Sunnis appear to have made some common cause with the Syrians whose Baathist regime is the only one left in the region, after the Sunni led Baathist regime of Saddam Hussein was deposed. Many Sunni activists appear to prefer a Caliphate, in imitation of the theocratic and royalist regimes of their middle eastern neighbors, but this seems unattainable in a region where warlords and elected officials collaborate to impose order.
There are still flash points, like Kirkut, an oil rich town whose future as Kurdish or Sunni is still in dispute, but they are beginning to look like the last embers of hot conflict in the country, rather than like fault lines or like the destination cord for a power keg of violence. There are also a few small regions in the central-eastern part of the country that have retained some semblance of a ethnically mixed population, and it is not clear that this equilibrium will be stable. The winners in these areas seem likely to be the Kurds and Shi'ites, as they hold all the cards in the national government which is in the best position to impose settlements in these cases.
The reasons for bringing the Iraq War were always dubious. Claims that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction, or ties to the 9-11 terrorists were not true. The atrocities from his regime avenged after the U.S. occupation in war crimes tribunals were mostly stale. While Iraq was authoritarian and violated civil liberties, it was less of an offender in this respect than neighbors like Egypt and Saudi Arabia whom the U.S. counts as allies. We can't even reasonably hope to leave Iraq as good as we found it. The new Iraq will be poorer, less educated and skilled, militarily weaker, and more ethnically divided both psychologically and geographically. Iraq will have greater democracy, and probably, once things settle down, even greater due process in its court system. With any luck, it will spend a decade or two focused on trying to establish a stable regime and rebuilt, leaving its neighbors, including Israel, a little safer from any military threat it may have presented before the invasion.
Viewed on a cost-benefit basis, however, it will be hard to say that the U.S. will be better off from this conflict than it would have been if it had never participated. The war was accomplished with almost no non-military domestic sacrifices like rationing, tax increases, an increase in the size of the active duty regular military, or a draft. While 9-11 changed American life and thinking, the Iraq War just slowly fed a perception of the George W. Bush regime's incompetence and cruelty.
I suspect that the biggest long term impact on the U.S. of the Iraq War will be on the way that the U.S. military thinks about warmaking. This was the conflicts that taught the U.S. that it can no longer fail to plan for counterinsurgency operations. Iraq, Afghanistan and Somoli piracy have capped off decades of smaller low intensity conflicts fought by U.S. troops since the Vietnam War. U.S. military planners are now aware that one of their major obligations is to develop doctrines, training and equipment in each of its services, which is more appropriate for counterinsurgency missions and other low intensity asymmetric conflicts, and have been given the opportunity to try out new doctrines and equipment in the "sandbox" of Iraq while developing NCO and junior officer skills in the face of a real war instead of training exercises. U.S. military planners have also learned the risks inherent in overreliance on the National Guard of the type seen in Iraq.
Iraq has pointed out the need for low explosive power high accuracy ordinance, the threat posed by IEDs and infantry based mortars and anti-armor weapons to lightly armored Humvees and military trucks, the importance of language skills, cultural skills and ally building strategies, the risks of using helicopters rather than fixed wing close air support aircraft against tanks, the importance of securing logistical convoy missions, and the importance of having a plan to occupy an area after seizing it in an invasion fought with major military force. Iraq has reaffirmed the system of field hospitals it created, but has also forced greater attention to the harms caused by brain injuries from closed head wounds. Iraq has debuted widespread use of land and air based drones in war, and the military potential of the "smart bomb." U.S. troops have relearned how to conduct urban combat and modified their equipment accordingly for the task.
The next generation of military planners will be less impressed by big ticket weapons systems designed to do battle with the Russian and Chinese military juggernauts and more impressed by more modest and less expensive innovations that will give small units an edge fighting forgettable wars in third world countries. This will take time to make its way into the culture of the slow moving military bureacracy, but that is where we are headed.