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Image Credit: NIÑO JOSE HEREDIA/©Gulf News

Sometime in the next few weeks the number of American soldiers in Afghanistan will, for the first time, be greater than the number in Iraq. The US is about halfway through the surge of forces in Afghanistan that President Barack Obama announced last year. At the same time the slow withdrawal of American troops from Iraq has moved ahead more-or-less according to the timetable negotiated by former president George W. Bush.

If that timetable holds, the American presence in Iraq will be down to around 50,000 by September. Those who will remain are not supposed to be combat units but, rather, trainers, advisers and their support troops. Even these, in theory at least, will be gone by the end of next year.

That means that sooner rather than later the Obama administration is likely to be confronted with some uncomfortable decisions.

The months since March's parliamentary election have been a sobering reminder of just how far Iraq really is from being the functioning, if imperfect, democracy that American officials like to describe. The last two months have been marked by both political paralysis and a grimly predictable surge in violence.

Limbo

Prime Minister Nouri Al Maliki, having narrowly finished second in the election, has tried to hold on to power by rewriting the rules after the fact. A tortuously slow recount of many of the votes in Baghdad has left government-formation in limbo. Iraqi politicians have been busy travelling around the region seeking support from their various foreign patrons.

The Americans, meanwhile, have kept their word and, by all accounts, have become an ever-less-visible presence around the country. Largely unmentioned, however, is the fact that the really hard part of the US withdrawal is the part that still lies ahead.

During the most bitter phase of America's political debate over the Iraq war the conflict's supporters justified an open-ended American presence in the country by putting forward a nightmare scenario: what happens if, once US troops leave, Iraq quickly becomes a genocidal hellscape — 1980s Lebanon carried several steps beyond its logical extreme?

Such a situation, the argument ran, would present the American president with the impossible choice of re-invading the country to stop the killing, or standing aside and watching Iraq burn, despite Washington's moral culpability for the mess.

There was always something self-serving in this — especially granted that the argument tended to be deployed by people who thought the US should stay in Iraq more-or-less indefinitely — but that does not mean there was not also a grain of truth in it as well.

The real test of the American withdrawal was always going to come at more-or-less this stage in the process: the point at which we are, mostly, done fighting and are sticking around mainly to train Iraq's police and security forces. Put another way, we are fast approaching the point beyond which, if there is a huge upsurge in violence in Iraq, the Americans will not be able to do very much about it.

And as we have also seen in recent weeks, a power vacuum in Baghdad can have bloody consequences throughout the country.

This is not an argument for keeping American troops in Iraq. It is, however, a warning for American and Iraqi policymakers alike that the toughest days of the draw-down probably lie ahead.

The Americans badly want to leave a functioning, at least vaguely democratic, state behind when they depart. The US military badly wants not to look like it is retreating under fire. But for that to happen the men who claim to speak for Iraq's voters are going to have to demonstrate a bit more patriotic spirit.

And if the country does descend into bloody factional chaos? What ought the Americans to do then? Does Obama move ahead and pull the last troops out, knowing that doing so will make things unconscionably worse? Or does he keep his soldiers in the country, even though everyone knows they can't — and won't — stay forever and that an extended deployment only postpones the inevitable?

Iraq has slipped from America's headlines in recent months, which has led more than a few Americans almost to forget that the war exists. Does the president have a plan of action if, despite its best efforts, the Iraq war forces itself back on to Washington's agenda?

Gordon Robison, a writer and commentator who has lived in and reported on the Middle East for two decades, teaches political science at the University of Vermont.