There’s a lot of tendentious material in this Washington Post piece about the alleged post-combat phase of the Iraq war. But Paul Rieckhoff asks a central question:

“If the war is ‘over,’ what happens if a Black Hawk goes down next week, God forbid?” asked Paul Rieckhoff, a veterans advocate. While combat troops have departed, the tens of thousands of troops still in Iraq are expected to engage in defensive military action when necessary, and Special Forces troops will continue to conduct counterterrorism missions.

But the war isn’t over. It’s not over until it’s over. The fact that 50,000 troops remain in Iraq, and will in staggered form until December 2011, testifies to the fact that it isn’t over. Those troops are an insurance policy — a hedge that Iraq doesn’t go completely off the rails before then.

The real trouble is that if it does, we’re not going to re-escalate. And what’s more, if Iraq really does re-descend into chaos, we wouldn’t have either the will or the capability to re-align it. We’re starting to hear murmurs from the center to the right contending that– well, they don’t really instantiate what they mean, but at the least, they express discomfort with leaving Iraq. And that’s a fair point for debate. But those who make that argument have an obligation to explain whether we should pull out of Afghanistan — not just troops, but the ISR and other supporting assets that make warfighting possible — and back into Iraq. And for what mission, if post-counterinsurgency security transitioning doesn’t work? As Marc Ambinder reports, the president’s speech tonight is going to cast the end of the Iraq war as a necessary step to refocusing on the broader struggle against al-Qaeda. (More on that in my next post.)

But Paul is right. Those who die in Iraq from now to December 2011 will have given the ultimate sacrifice in a war — a war that is no less real after tonight, when Operation New Dawn (ugh) begins, than it was after May 1, 2003. If we choose not to pay attention, that’s a discredit to us, not to them, just as it was when troops died in Afghanistan during the six years of the “Forgotten War” era. The Obama administration gambles that stair-stepping down the war is the safest way to extricate the country from it. But the administration will still have the responsibility of prosecuting that war for the next year.