Between 200 and 300 US military personnel remain on the ground in Iraq, training the Iraqi military and overseeing foreign military sales. “It’s more classroom stuff, dealing at the higher levels – it’s certainly not range training or basic combat. Obviously we’ve gotten beyond that,” says Speaks.
Those who have been on the ground recently hold a similar view. Lt. Col. Mark Cheadle was in Baghdad for four months after the official end of the war. “I would have to say things have gone as expected. I wouldn’t say their progress is worse than expected.”
Still, “it’s not what we would necessarily consider a success from a US or traditional Western point of view,” adds Cheadle, who served as a strategic analyst and adviser for Iraqi key leader engagements.
US military officials expected “some violence and tribal fault lines to continue. They have," he notes. "I also think we expected business to begin to thrive and security conditions to trend upward. I think they have.”
Even amid this violence, restaurants and car dealerships – unofficial barometers analysts use to track development – are beginning to open with some frequency, says Michael Rubin, a resident scholar at the conservative American Enterprise Institute.
But there is also a sense throughout the country that a “Damocles sword” hangs over Iraq in the form of the Syrian conflict to the west and disputes over oil wealth to the north, he adds.
“There’s a real fear that the Syrian civil war is going to blow back into Iraq, and people worry about all of these unresolved issues with the Kurds,” Mr. Rubin says.
Less feared by Iraqi Shiites, but of more concern to Pentagon officials, is a growing Iranian influence to the east.
“By the US withdrawing its forces, we ceded a lot of ground to the Iranians, and the Iraqis aren’t able to resist them as easily,” Rubin says.