A brief, meta prelude: You know why you read so many stories in 2005-6 about how there weren't enough troops in Iraq? And why you read so many stories in 2008 about how there weren't enough troops in Afghanistan? Because when reporters would do our embeds then, that would be the message we'd get from the captain and the first sergeant. Consider it calculated lobbying, conducted through the media. The small price to pay was implying you weren't winning your war -- which was, y'know, true; and if it was inconvenient for higher headquarters, well, those were the guys to properly blame, anyway.
(End intro.) So when you see the Times getting access to U.S. special operations forces in Iraq -- and reporting that neither they nor the Iraqis want to say goodbye -- keep that context in mind. Access to special units doesn't happen by accident or without a purpose.
“Would we hope after spending eight years in this country, sharing blood, sweat and tears, dying side by side, working with each other, that we would maintain a relationship?” Col. Scott E. Brower, commander of the Combined Joint Special Operations Task Force-Arabian Peninsula, said in an interview at a base north of Baghdad. “Of course we would.”
Brower doesn't have to worry. Leon Panetta's first statement as defense secretary included a something approaching a promise not to leave Iraq: "[W]e must cement a strategic relationship with the Iraqi government, one based not solely on our military footprint there but on a real and lasting partnership." (That "not solely" is quite an elegant turn of phrase.) Panetta even testified that there are 1,000 al-Qaeda operatives in Iraq, which seems like a huge and unbelievable number (there aren't even a third of that estimated to be in Pakistan).
A prospective post-2011 residual force gets spun as an embassy-based force that'll train Iraqis how to operate and maintain their American weaponry, or help keep diplomats safe. Bullshit. You can bet that the absolute last units to leave will belong to Brower's command. During his confirmation hearing last week, ex-JSOC/incoming SOCOM chief Adm. William McRaven forecasted his desire to keep them there. And since the new White House counterterrorism strategy boils down to "kill anyone anywhere with drones and commandos who we think might have so much as plus-one'd al-Qaeda," Iraq can't very well fall off that list. You can also bet that Panetta and McRaven don't want to cede Iraq to Iranian influence, no matter how many times we have to be reminded that a democratic Iraq is going to be comfortable with Teheran.
No one in the United States gives a shit about Iraq anymore. "Forgotten war" doesn't begin to cover it. Iraq feels like a fever dream, reduced from a charnel house to a flipped cable-news channel to the absurdity of a lame Meek Mill lyric. So I wonder if there would be any political consequence to Obama putting an asterisk on his promise to end the war. (There's a qualitative difference, I think we can agree, between U.S. forces used for training foreign allies and those used for hunting and killing people [even if, yes, sometimes training involves going on raids].) Absolutely nothing in Obama's record as president suggests that he makes hard, declarative uncaveated statements on foreign policy. Obama 2012: He Ended* The Iraq War. It won't be true. Just true enough for American appetites.
Photo by the U.S. Army. And yeah, I know the dude in this picture isn't SOF, so don't fucking bother commenting to that effect. I'm not gonna spend any time hunting for a lame night-vision-y image; plus he's looking through binos, and it's a post forecasting the future for the military presence in Iraq, get it?