Connect to share and comment

In Iraq, Americans have one foot out the door

As US forces head for Afghanistan, real security remains elusive in Iraq.

Iraqi soldiers provide security near the ancient Arch of Ctesiphon during a search operation in Salman Pak, about 20 miles southeast of Baghdad, April 19, 2010. (Saad Shalash/Reuters)

BAGHDAD, Iraq — The hot dry wind kicks up the dust around the plywood table and broken chair that pass for a police checkpoint in east Baghdad. The lone policeman is unusually nervous.

For once, the police are afraid of us rather than the other way around. After a series of shootings at checkpoints by gunmen with silencers, even a reporter and an Iraqi bodyguard getting out of the car could be potential assassins.

In Iraq after the elections, almost nothing is clear and nothing is predictable — particularly for Americans with one foot out the door, hoping Baghdad doesn’t collapse behind them as they head off for Kandahar.

In the past three years, the country has pulled back from civil war, and in most places Iraqi soldiers and police, rather than insurgents and militias, rule the streets. But as U.S. forces withdraw, the real stability the military surge was intended to create is still elusive.

At the huge U.S. outposts that were Saddam’s air bases, the headlights of military vehicles pierce the dust and darkness as they head off to Kuwait on their way to Afghanistan.

It’s one of the biggest movements of men and materials in decades — what one senior commander calls a massive and complex job "in a fluid situation." About 40,000 vehicles, 80,000 containers and 3 million pieces of equipment are on their way out — almost half of them destined for the new front.

For the first time, the war in Afghanistan is costing the U.S. more than the conflict in Iraq — $6.5 billion a month in February compared with the $5.5 billion bill here.

Almost every other day in Iraq, U.S. forces close one of the joint security stations in the cities. The stations were at the center of the surge strategy aimed at protecting the population — a counterinsurgency strategy being transplanted to the very different climate of Kandahar. The "slow rising tide" of security is still for the most part holding in Iraq, but as the U.S. presence recedes here, parts of the shoreline are looking a little shaky.

U.S. commanders say they’re still on track for cutting American forces in Iraq from 90,000 to about 50,000 by the end of August and down to nothing by the end of next year. But political turmoil more than two months after national elections and a series of unforeseen attacks appear to have shifted the beginning of the time line — with some units due to leave in June instead of May.

“The August deadline of course was set at the end of February 2009 and it was based on a whole set of assumptions … all of those assumptions now are out the window,” said Brett McGurk, a former National Security Council official who helped craft the status of forces agreement with Iraq.

Among those assumptions, said McGurk, currently with the Council on Foreign Relations, were that elections would happen in December 2009, that a government would be formed three months later and that U.S. forces could withdraw fairly rapidly. Instead voting took place in March after months of wrangling over an election law.