IT IS EASY for Americans to lose sight of the continuing war in Iraq while focusing on President Obama's decision to increase U.S. forces in Afghanistan up to 100,000.
That would be a mistake since the conflict in Iraq, now moving toward its seventh year, still has some 130,000 U.S. forces in a combat situation and America continues to spend an estimated $10 billion a month there.
Although the level of U.S. deaths in Iraq has dropped, the total standing at above 4,300, conflict in Iraq has by no means ceased. In one incident last month, attackers in Iraqi Army uniforms killed 13 men and boys near Abu Ghraib, the site of the infamous prison, beheading some of them in what appears to have been sectarian violence directed against Iraq's Sunni minority for having cooperated with U.S. forces.
Another problem has been the reluctance of the Iraqi parliament to reach agreement on an electoral law that had to be passed in advance of the national elections scheduled for Jan. 16. Both Iraq's Sunni and Kurdish minorities were blocking action on it, seeking to improve their situations in advance of the balloting. The law was finally passed last weekend.
It wouldn't have mattered to the United States except that Washington had unwisely tied the beginning of U.S. troop withdrawal from Iraq to the successful completion of the elections. The elections will now take place in late February or March and U.S. withdrawal will begin in May instead of January.
The U.S. military commander in Iraq, Gen. Raymond Odierno, maintains that the United States can be flexible about its withdrawal schedule. The problem with that approach is that it opens the door to delaying tactics on the part of Iraqis who have an interest in keeping U.S. forces there as long as possible.
These Iraqis include the minorities, such as the Sunnis and Kurds, who want to strengthen their positions as much as possible while U.S. forces provide security, in anticipation of the sectarian showdown that will occur when U.S. forces pull out.
The Shiite leadership of the occupation government, led by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, itself has reason to delay U.S. withdrawal, with visions of the final U.S. withdrawal from Vietnam in 1975 dancing in their heads.
Finally, there is reason to think that without U.S. forces in country to provide security, there will be a reduction in U.S. aid and other financial support to Iraq. The United States has poured in an estimated $53 billion for relief and the construction and reconstruction of bridges, power stations, schools, and water plants since the 2003 invasion. That gravy train will slow down or even stall as U.S. troops depart.
There is no reason why the U.S. forces shouldn't depart or the aid flow slow, starting as soon as possible. At the same time, Americans need to be aware that there will be pressure in Iraq and in Washington not to let that occur, for financial and for political reasons.