News flash for the president-elect: All our troops are combat troops. It isn't like some American soldiers stroll around Iraq unarmed. Nor do the insurgents inquire about the troops' MOS (military occupational specialties) before detonating an IED. Indeed, I feel safer in Iraq accompanying an infantry unit on foot patrol than I do while riding in a convoy of transport soldiers, who are much more likely to get popped by a roadside bomb. So his promise to get "combat troops" out of Iraq in the next 16 months is a phrase that means much less than it appears to. At any rate, I bet Obama is wrong: I think we are going to have tens of thousands of troops in Iraq -- mentoring, advising and engaged in combat -- for many years to come.
The recent Status of Forces Agreement also means less than it seems. For example, U.S. forces are supposed to get out of major bases in the cities later this year. But there really aren't major big bases in the cities now-the last time I was in Iraq I was told there is really only one -- and U.S. military advisors will remain in urban outposts along with Iraqi forces. I suspect the SOFA really is most meaningful for the political help it will give Prime Minister Maliki in getting re-elected at the end of 2009 by taking the American presence off the table as a wedge issue for Iraqis.
Here are two grim early predictions for the new administration in Iraq:
Meantime, marinate a minute on Petraeus's letter to his troops last month: "The year ahead will contain significant challenges, among them: provincial district and national elections; resilient enemies still carrying out deadly attacks; lingering ethno-sectarian mistrust and competition; malign external influences; and a national referendum on the US-Iraq Strategic Agreement."
To those who think this thing is almost over: What part of "lingering ethno-sectarian mistrust" don't you understand? And if you think Petraeus was simply being cautious, listen to former Iraqi prime minister Iyad Allawi, who was installed by the United States but whose pessimistic assessment over the weekend was, "I did not imagine the political process would eat itself from inside or that it would abandon the rule of law and establish political sectarianism."
Photo of Obama with General Petraeus in Iraq by Lorie Jewell/U.S. Army via Getty Images
Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military for the Washington Post from 2000 through 2008.