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A symbolic end to the war isn't an end to war at all

IT WASN'T A victory speech. Those were the first words that President Obama spoke tonight at Fort Bliss in El Paso, Tex., "It’s not going to be a victory lap. It’s not going to be self-congratulatory."

But what was it, then? The end of the Iraq War? No. "There’s still a lot of work that we’ve got to do to make sure that Iraq is an effective partner with us," said the President Obama next.

At best, it was a symbolic end to the Iraq War--the non-descriptive phrase of "combat operations" have ended. "Iraq" as a synecdoche for the failure of the second term of the Bush Administration, the issue for whether political candidates are "tough" on defense or not, whether a Democrat could really could stand up to the Bush Administration, and as centerpiece of the post-9/11 foreign policy of Democracy promotion, is over.

$748.2 billion dollars later, 4,394 Americans killed, 31,763 wounded, about 100,000 Iraqis dead, not to mention millions of Iraqis as refugees or displaced, Iraq isn't at the forefront of American politics. Nor is it controversial, save for foreign policy neoconservatives like John Bolton or Bill Kristol. President Obama, who campaigned on his opposition to the Iraq War, is simply carrying out the Status of Forces Agreement negotiated by his predecessor.

But heed Obama's words, sounding as vague as his predecessor: "There’s still a lot of work that we’ve got to do." The President described that work, "We’re still going to be going after terrorists in those areas. And so our counterterrorism operations are still going to be conducted jointly. But the bottom line is, is that our combat phase is now over."

It seems that the President said two different things in two sentences. "Combat operations" are over, but we're still "going after terrorists." So, yes, that means Americans will be fighting and dying and Iraq. As veterans advocate Paul Reickhoff told the Washington Post, "If the war is 'over,' what happens if a Black Hawk goes down next week, God forbid?" Troops may still engage in "defensive actions," which means fighting really isn't over--it's just about who started it.

Americans are slated to leave--for good--in December 2011. But what if it's clear that Iraqi Security Forces cannot keep the country secure? If the Iraqi government asked for the Americans to stay to secure the country, would President Obama agree? Those questions make the 2011 deadline seem artificial, for American and Iraqi domestic consumption. As Iraqi Lt. General Babakir Zebari said, "If I were asked about the withdrawal, I would say to politicians, the U.S. army must stay until the Iraqi army is fully ready in 2020."

The question of how are Sunnis, Shias and Kurds going to live together, share power, share wealth, form a government seems completely unsolved. A return to the violence of 2005-2006 could well happen, now with a decreased U.S. presence, more overt influence from Iran and other outside actors.

All of this will be violent, and determine the American position in the Middle East.

For Americans in Iraq, this fake milestone of the end of "combat operations" is probably the beginning of the end. For Iraqis, it's the end of the beginning.

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