With the Iraqi Army increasingly taking charge of security operations, Washington and Baghdad have agreed on a proposal that would see combat troops leaving Iraq by 2011, three years from now, and to leave major urban centers by the summer of 2009.  Iraq’s National Assembly would have to agree to these terms, and while some may object to the lengthier time frame than widely discussed, the Iraqis want to see some firm end to American combat operations, and would likely embrace this framework:

U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari said Thursday both sides had made progress in finalizing the principles of a long-term security treaty, but any deal still faces significant challenges in winning approval in Baghdad.

U.S. and Iraqi negotiating teams have concluded their formal talks aimed at hammering out the details of a draft agreement. The proposed deal will set the conditions for a continued U.S. military presence in Iraq. (See related article.)

A draft agreement now circulating sets 2011 as a goal for the withdrawal of U.S. combat troops, said Iraqi Deputy Foreign Minister Mohammed al-Haj Humood, who is the lead Iraqi negotiator, and other people familiar with the talks.

Another aspiration is to have U.S. troops leave population centers by June 30, 2009, and move to bases on the outskirts of those areas, these people said. Any agreement on a date would also allow for flexibility if security conditions suddenly worsen, these people said.

These time frames make a lot more sense now, with the security forces establishing order on their own, than they did two years ago when Democrats wanted an immediate retreat from Iraq.  The surge, which even Barack Obama now admits worked, gave the Maliki government enough time to press for political reconciliation while hitting hard at militias, insurgents, and al-Qaeda.  He had claimed as recently as four weeks ago that the surge didn’t help stabilize Iraq, a ridiculous notion on its face.

Now, however, with the Iraqi Army gaining its own strength and the wheels of democracy working in their normally messy but peaceful fashion, it’s appropriate to start looking at a long-term strategy of drawdown.  The Iraqis want to govern themselves, an opportunity afforded them by American troops and American stamina, but at some point American troops will get in the way.  If the Iraqi government wants a long-term presence of American military for support, then we can enter into such a partnership along the same lines as the relationships we have with Germany and South Korea.  That will eventually be their choice, and that time is coming sooner rather than later.

The drawdown will take several years, and for good reason.  Iraq has very little air power at the moment, and could not possibly defend its borders against its neighbors if necessary because of that.  They have limited capabilities in air power even for internal security issues and must rely on the American forces for assistance.  Their Navy is in even worse shape, although our assistance in that area doesn’t require a large footprint within Iraq.   We’re in the process of training their intel services from the ground up, which will take several more years.  However, for most of these efforts, American combat troops will not be needed.

The time horizons suggested in this proposal look realistic, if a bit optimistic, at least in terms of the pullback from the urban areas in ten months.  As long as that move does not trigger more violence, the gradual reduction of combat forces over the next two years following that should occur fairly naturally as the troops will have little to do.  Meanwhile, a lasting presence for logistical and training support can help strengthen Iraq without stepping on its sovereignty.  This is what victory looks like.

Will this affect the American presidential race?  Perhaps a bit in favor of Barack Obama.  John McCain gets the bragging rights, and can legitimately show that Obama’s judgment failed in the greatest test of the war.  It’s one thing to say that we shouldn’t have invaded Iraq, but another entirely to declare that we needed to retreat as Obama said repeatedly from 2006 forward and lose, rather than change strategies and beat the terrorists arrayed against us at the time.

However, the victory in Iraq makes that issue far less compelling than it was six months ago.  Voters will focus more on the economy, where Obama’s populism has proven attractive, and less on foreign policy, unless Georgia heats up again.  If Obama is smart, he’ll simply stop talking about Iraq altogether.