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As combat troops leave, Iraq's future still uncertain

By Jack Jacobs, NBC News military analyst

NEW YORK – It has been a complicated logistical enterprise, but the president’s goal of reducing the American presence in Iraq seems to be proceeding more or less according to his campaign promise.

But anyone who thinks that there will be no U.S. forces in Iraq is mistaken – we will continue to suffer casualties and spend money while the fractious politicians in Baghdad try to get a grip on their fragile democracy.

Sadly, the odds of long-term success are long.

Combat troops say 'So long'
We are withdrawing combat troops, but we will leave behind a substantial support base of Americans to help the wobbly Iraqis: technical experts, logistical support, engineers, air power, administrative people and a host of other assistance that the Iraqis desperately need. Some will be located in Iraq, and some will be based in nations bordering Iraq, but they will remain in the region for a long time to come.

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U.S. troops will help provide local security, but the American combat role will be formally terminated. The thousands of soldiers, Marines and airmen left behind will serve as advisers, formed into mobile teams to train Iraqi military and police units. As we discovered in Vietnam and a number of other places, advisory work is slow, labor-intensive and frustrating.

Advisers have no authority over the Iraqis and must battle disinterest, ethnic tension, illiteracy, ineptitude, fear and corruption, all formidable opponents. Terrorists, separatists and the disaffected will have to be found and eliminated or converted, but in the meantime there will be violence. And strategic regional threats, Iran chief among them, will complicate Iraqi military recovery. Getting the Iraqis into fighting trim will be neither quick nor easy.

Lights need to come on
Not all of Iraq’s problems are security troubles. A good example of the many other things that need to be fixed is the electrical power grid. It does work, but only occasionally and not in a predictable way. Even if residents can become inured to an intermittent and insufficient supply of electricity – commerce can’t.

A viable commercial sector is a principal element of stability, and economic activity will not grow until we help the Iraqis generate adequate, reliable electricity. In a country that has consumed billions of dollars in American aid, this important task is not supposed to be difficult to accomplish.

Whatever else one can say about President Barack Obama's decisions on national security – and there is plenty to criticize – one can’t accuse Obama of failing to keep his word on Iraq.

Then an Illinois state senator, Obama voted against the invasion, and he has been consistent in saying that it was a waste of resources and distracted us from the objective of eliminating the Taliban in Afghanistan.

But Obama also has announced that, beginning in less than a year, he will order a withdrawal of combat troops from Afghanistan as well.

Presumably, he intends to fight the Taliban from a distance with remotely piloted aircraft and with the occasional special operation. Although these instruments are cost effective, they are not decisive in an asymmetrical conflict, and so his pledge to defeat the Taliban, which requires more time and troops, is a hollow one.

Different challenges, same goal
In most respects, Iraq and Afghanistan are as different as can be. Iraq was a centrally governed political entity for a long time; Afghanistan is a loose collection of tribes. Iraq has a history of successful agriculture and industry since ancient times; Afghanistan is mostly desolate and is among the poorest countries on earth.

But Obama's strategic objective in Iraq is startlingly similar to that in Afghanistan: establish and support a stable democracy that can defend itself against its enemies. However, like in Afghanistan, it is not clear that there is much to support in Iraq just yet.

There is a continuous, paralyzing and often violent argument among Iraqis about parliamentary representation, about the method of voting, about the distribution of resources, about almost everything – basic concepts on which citizens must concur if the political machinery is to operate at all. Debate is healthy, but paralysis is not, particularly in a nation that is at risk without strong leadership from Baghdad.

Everything we are doing in Iraq, and everything we continue to sacrifice, is for the purpose of giving the Iraqis safety, stability and prosperity.

We deposed a dictator and put in his place a system designed to deliver political power to those who did not have it before, but in the process we are leaving the Iraqis without the leadership it needs to survive.

In the wake of our departure, Baghdad's weakness is liable to encourage the rise of another despot, demonstrating something we learned during our own revolution but have evidently forgotten: installing democracy takes time and patience, two valuable resources in short supply.

Jack Jacobs is a Medal of Honor recipient for heroic actions during the Vietnam War.