On Aug. 31, U.S. combat forces officially withdrew from Iraq -- except for the 50,000 "advisers" and support personnel who remain. According to the U.S.-Iraqi status of forces agreement, all U.S. troops will be gone by the end of 2011 -- unless whoever ends up forming the next government in Baghdad asks the Americans to stay. As for Afghanistan, President Obama has promised to begin drawing down U.S. forces in July '11 -- although Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Gen. David Petraeus have both emphasized that drawdown will be cautious, gradual and based on improvements in Afghan security.
So while the total number of troops deployed really has come down, all these caveats make it hard to predict when the last U.S. troops will finally come home, if they ever do. Anti-war activists argue for a swift and complete withdrawal from both theaters; hegemonists prefer a small but permanent advisory presence. What will the U.S. troop levels actually be in Iraq and Afghanistan by the end of 2011? What levels can the American public and politicians sustain? What levels would best serve our national security interests, whatever they are, in these two countries? And is there any overlap between what we probably will do and what we really should?