WASHINGTON -- About a week ago, I reported in this column that a top defense adviser to Barack Obama was proposing that a large "residual" U.S. military force remain in Iraq under his mercurial troop-withdrawal plan.
The freshman Chicago Democrat pooh-poohed such reports at the time, saying those who accused him of changing his position on pulling out all U.S. combat forces from Iraq "haven't apparently been listening to me."
But in an op-ed column in Monday's New York Times, Obama said he will leave behind "a residual force in Iraq" that would carry out a number of missions, including going after al-Qaeda insurgents, defending remaining U.S. servicemen left behind and training Iraqi security forces.
It is hard to follow the swiftly changing positions in his troop-withdrawal plan, but at last count, it has gone from removing all U.S. military forces to all "combat forces" to his most recent position: Pulling out most combat forces with an apparently undetermined number of brigades left behind for the foreseeable future.
In my earlier column, I reported that Obama's national-security advisers were dropping hints that his redeployment plan would be more flexible and gradual than his earlier calls for a complete pullout, regardless of the combat situation on the ground.
The biggest hint came from Colin Kahl, assistant professor in the Security Studies Program at the Georgetown School of Foreign Service, who is the chief coordinator of Obama's working group on Iraq policy. The group's job has been to write policy papers that would form the basis of his withdrawal plan. But in several policy papers and memos, Kahl disagreed with Obama's exuberant rhetoric for a total withdrawal.
"Rather than unilaterally and unconditionally withdrawing from Iraq and hoping the international community will fill the void and push the Iraqis toward accommodation -- a very unlikely scenario -- the United States must embrace a policy of 'conditional engagement,'" Kahl wrote with former National Security Agency director William E. Odom in the July/August issue of Foreign Affairs.
"This approach would couple a phased redeployment of combat forces with a commitment to providing residual support for the Iraqi government if and only if it moves toward genuine reconciliation," he said.
Kahl told me in a phone interview that his views did not represent the campaign's position. But he expressed similar views in other confidential papers for the campaign, and advisers said they have come to reflect the senator's "emerging thinking" on how to make a troop-withdrawal plan work without leaving the Iraqis at the mercy of a renewed insurgency.