Despite the best efforts of the Ministry of Information, relatively little attention was paid to last week's withdrawal of the last active combat battalions from Iraq. My first reaction was to wonder why the media and public were not treating this as a major story, instead focusing on the idiotic Ground Zero nontroversy and various other tabloid quality nonsense. But the reasons are pretty obvious. First, this is largely symbolic and the U.S. military presence remains considerable. The idea that this is a withdrawal is eerily reminiscent of Bush's "end of major combat operations" with its glaring adjective. Second, Iraq is completely fucked up to an extent that we dare not speak. To draw attention to the withdrawal would raise too many questions about what we're leaving behind. Lastly, we'll probably be going back in soon if the performance of the Iraqi Army is any indication.
The victory narrative – er, "success," since the word "victory" has been stricken from our political lexicon – is entirely hollow, as Hannah Gurman points out. A national myth might be a small price to pay, however, if it contributes to getting us the hell out of there. That seems unlikely. While the administration(s) have been touting the might of the 650,000 strong Iraqi Army for eight years now, only a fraction of its manpower is remotely reliable and an even smaller fraction (estimated at 50 battalions) is capable of carrying out combat operations unassisted. Ray Odierno is already working the media and laying the groundwork for an American return, noting that we'll go right back in if there is a "complete failure" of the security forces in place. I'd put the odds of the Iraqi Army's failure at, oh, about 100%.
It goes without saying that "success" applies only from the American perspective, and even then only inasmuch as success is defined at getting the hell out. Iraq is a disaster. The talk of success and withdrawal contrasts markedly with the car bombings and mortar attacks and this cute little story about terrorist sympathizers who infiltrated the police and let some al-Qaeda guys out of prison. Does that sound like stability? Like something that will function as a state? At best it sounds like a second Afghanistan. The American Embassy, the grandiosity of which has been pointedly noted over the years, includes its own water, power, and sewage facilities, a telling statement of what Washington really thinks about the "progress" made in Baghdad.
The reality is that Iraq lacks functioning infrastructure, an economy outside of servicing the U.S. military and foreign contractors, or anything resembling an effective government (in which ex-Baathists, hidden insurgents, and plain ol' corruption remain epidemics). To be brutally frank, this amounts to par for the course in Central Asia and much of the Middle East. Hell, even given its sad state of affairs at present, Iraq is still in better shape than a number of countries in the region that haven't suffered eight years of foreign invasion (Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan, Afghanistan, Azerbaijan, most of Pakistan, and so on). But the war was supposed to turn Iraq into a beacon of democracy in the region. If the outcome is that we made Iraq into West Pakistan or Lesser Armenia, I'd say we aimed for the moon and ended up exploding on the launch pad. The outcome, even though it is what any thinking person would have expected at the outset of this misadventure, will linger on as an embarrassment to the U.S. much in the same way that Vietnam did for an earlier generation.
What happens next in Iraq? The neocons were right about one thing: without the U.S. military there, things will probably get much worse in a hurry. Where my opinion diverges from theirs is that I don't see this undeniable fact as a reason to make an indefinite commitment to keeping a presence there and sustaining a couple hundred U.S. combat deaths per year until 2030 or whatever. Our military presence is still substantial – there are almost 70,000 troops still in the country – and of course our economic investment will continue (and continue bankrupting us). I get the feeling that we'll have a hard time defining anything as "success" except for getting the hell out, and the State Department and Pentagon might want to dust off some tricks from the Cold War playbook, starting with the chapter about how to prop up a failing puppet regime.