No. 10: Iraq Withdrawal

The United States has more than 100 Status of Forces Agreements or, in an unlikely acronym, SOFAs. A congressional report states that SOFAs “generally establish the framework under which U.S. military personnel operate in a foreign country, addressing how the domestic laws of the foreign jurisdiction shall be applied toward U.S. personnel while in that country.”

That was one of several agreements signed in November 2008 by U.S. ambassador Ryan Crocker and Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari, one year after the respective leaders of each country signed a Declaration of Principles for a Long-Term Relationship of Cooperation and Friendship Between the Republic of Iraq and the United States of America. The SOFA stipulated a two-part withdrawal: the departure of combat forces no later than June 30, 2009, and then the withdrawal of all U.S. forces no later than December 31, 2011.

But nothing is straightforward in a conflict that has involved American troops since March 2003. President Obama followed the timeline, and his campaign pledge, largely according to schedule. He confirmed the Iraqi drawdown. The announcement drew ire from Republicans, from presidential hopefuls to Senator John McCain. A military historian declared the move a “tragedy” and accused the Obama administration of offering a “puny force” of 5,000 troops, instead of committing to a more “robust” presence to aid Iraq’s democratic efforts and thwart neighbors such as Iran and Saudi Arabia.

Ready to withdraw
The objections weren’t shared by the public. In a year when high approval was hard to come by, three out of four Americans supported the withdrawal. The Gallup poll numbers in favor of withdrawal were overwhelming from Democrats (96%) and strong from independents (77%), while a majority of Republicans (52%) disapproved.

By March 2008, before that SOFA was signed, some Americans had already stopped keeping track of troop sacrifices. Awareness was discouragingly low throughout the conflict: In summer 2007, 54% of Americans knew how many soldiers had died. Seven months later, 35% knew that nearly 4,000 had been confirmed dead. Not surprisingly, awareness corresponded with war news coverage.

Unprepared for the homecoming?
That brings up a constant concern, which was the subject of a Time cover story: The 45,000 troops due home (mostly in North Carolina and Texas) will return to a country occupied — sometimes literally — by other concerns. A common narrative, such as the one investigated by PBS, is how America is unprepared for its vets, either with jobs or with PTSD treatment. (The Senate did pass a jobs bill featuring employer tax incentives to hire unemployed vets.)

Time magazine, however, highlights a different divide: “Soldiers and sailors are more highly paid, more likely to be married, and more conservative politically than the nation as a whole.” They tend to be healthier and have access to schools and medical care right on base. They also feel they hold stronger values than the average citizen — a disquieting sense of elitism that Defense Secretary Robert Gates has addressed before cadets on at least two occasions.

Of course, not everyone will stay home. Some will join the 40,000 troops already stationed in the Persian Gulf, namely in Kuwait and international waters.

Watching Iraq’s neighbors
As for Iraq’s future, a few developments guard against Iran swooping into the vacuum. There is Iran’s own infighting and the alleged bizarre plot involving plans to hire Mexican drug lords to kill a Saudi Arabian ambassador on American soil. Iran — which suppressed its own 2009 civilian revolt — has tried to capitalize on the Arab Spring, but its rival Turkey, despite its Kurdish problems, has emerged as the elder influential statesman in the region. Turkey, as the Economist points out, “has large commercial interests in Iraq.”

And then there’s basic customer service: After the fall of Saddam Hussein, Iraqis became annoyed with Iranians’ cheap merchandise and profiteering. Said one Iraqi factory owner to the New York Times, “After the fall of the regime, many Iranian companies came here, but they screwed it all up.”

The Yahoo! Year in Review editorial lead for five years running, Vera H-C Chan dissects news events, pop-culture idiosyncrasies, and online behavior to probe the “why” behind what’s hot online. On Yahoo!, her articles can be found in News, TV, Movies, and her Shine blog Fast-Talking Dame. Across the Net, there are remnants of contributions to a cultural travel guide, martial arts encyclopedia, movie criticism, business profiles, and A&E/features reporting.