Spectator's Journal

Iraq in the Rearview Mirror

So now that we're out, what did we accomplish?

By From the December 2011 - January 2012 issue

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Historians may someday conclude that the most curious incident of Barack Obama's presidency occurred in October 2011. When Obama announced that the last of our troops would be withdrawn from Iraq by year's end, the news was almost lost amid the tsunami of economic news and metronomic campaign debates. There were no great outpourings of emotion, ringing speeches, or UN hyperbole. The moment was, like Sherlock Holmes' observation of the dog in the night-time, curious because of the silence that surrounded it.

Why would the most controversial war since Vietnam end without as much controversy as when it began? The reason is that that America tuned out the Iraq war years ago. The horrific Sunni vs. Shia violence that overwhelmed Iraq after the Samarra mosque bombing in February 2006 was quelled by General Petraeus's troop surge. When the violence subsided to Iraq's new normal, so did the controversy. From late 2008, America has been interested in almost nothing but economic news. And, from 2009, we've had a president who kept the willing media focused on everything other than the war.

Too little political attention has been paid to the war in general and Iraq in particular. To the extent that Americans debated the war at all, Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan--and the deaths of Osama bin Laden and Anwar al-Awlaki--were isolated events, worlds away from the economic crisis that diverted our attention from everything else.

We know, from the memoirs of George W. Bush, Richard Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, Tony Blair, and George Tenet, the reasons for the decision to launch the U.S. invasion of Iraq. They've also tried to explain the choice of a post-war occupation and nation-building effort that commenced there and in Afghanistan. That wisdom (or lack of it) cannot be measured at this moment in time.

Too many books have already been written on whether we "won" or "lost" the war in Iraq. That question is unresolved because of President Bush's failure--and that of his successor--to define correctly the war that began on 9/11. (There is a strong argument that it began long before 9/11, with bin Laden's fatwa against America in 1996, or as far back as 1979 with the advent of the Iranian kakistocracy.) Neither Bush nor Obama had the wisdom to define it correctly as a war with the nations that sponsor terrorism and the hegemonic ideology of Islam that propels them. That war could not have been won within the borders of Iraq, though it may have been lost.

We know what it has cost us. At this writing, we've spent 4,287 American lives. Last summer, the Congressional Budget Office estimated the cost of the war at that date was about $709 billion. (The Congressional Research Service set the cost higher at $748 billion.)

President Bush said (and wrote in his memoir) that our goal was a unified, democratic Iraq that could govern itself, sustain itself, defend itself, and serve as an ally in the "War on Terror." As we shall see, it's apparent that no part of this goal has been achieved, and that the progress made toward them is fleeting.

SO WHAT HAVE we accomplished in iraq? Are these accomplishments worth the sacrifices we--or, more accurately, our military--have made?

It appears that our principal accomplishment in Iraq is that we have given the Iraqi people their freedom. It is theirs to use as they see fit. Have we? And is it?

For decades before 2003, Iraq had been ruled by a Baathist dictator who had tortured and murdered his people, sometimes en masse, even with chemical weapons. Saddam was Sunni, and oppressed the Shia relentlessly. Some of their most prominent clerics allied themselves with Iran, overcoming the Arab-Persian enmity solely to seek succor from Saddam's repression.

Iraqi Kurds were relatively rich, their northern homeland containing some of the nation's biggest oil fields. But their border with Turkey was often aflame with cross-border military action by Kurdish terrorists known as the PKK and Turkey's actions against them.

From these facts we should have understood that Iraq was not a nation. Its citizens had no unifying loyalty to an Iraqi state. They were not bound by a common purpose to a common good. Iraq and Afghanistan were nations in name only before we invaded them, and are not nations now. In neither state is there a strong nationalist spirit that overcomes tribal and religious rivalries.

We invaded Afghanistan quickly after 9/11, and chased the Taliban out of Kabul in short order. But it was a very shallow and inconclusive victory. President Bush, as his memoir says, believed we had a moral obligation to leave "something better" behind there than the primitive dictatorship we drove out. Unless we captured or killed bin Laden and Taliban leader Mullah Omar--both hard, elusive targets--a "victory" in Afghanistan to adequately avenge the 9/11 attacks had no tangible goal.

Over this loomed Saddam Hussein's Iraq. Since the 1991 Gulf War, Saddam had consistently defied one UN Security Council resolution after another. His military forces challenged the "no-fly zone" (enforced by U.S. and British aircraft) often, resulting in increased tension and occasional firefights when our air forces--or those of the British--fired at Iraqi anti-aircraft missile sites in response to Iraqi action targeting or actually shooting at them.

Saddam played his role to the letter, defying the U.N., playing host to some of the most notorious terrorists such as Abu Nidal and--as we later discovered--al Qaeda's Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. The game he played--refusing to cooperate with UN weapons inspectors to conceal from his loyalists that he lacked the weapons he was thought to have--was ultimately his undoing.

THE U.S. INVASION and the defeat of Saddam's forces were a foregone conclusion, but what came afterward was not. In January 2003, President Bush was presented with two plans for post-invasion Iraq. One, authored by Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Richard Myers, was endorsed by the entire military community. It planned for a provisional Iraqi government to be stood up and the withdrawal of U.S. forces in a matter of months. The alternative--authored by Secretary of State Colin Powell and CIA Director George Tenet--provided for an extended occupation and another nation-building exercise.

The Rumsfeld-Myers plan would have deprived the nations that sponsor terrorism--Iran, Syria, Saudi Arabia, and the rest--of the opportunity to engage us in a long war. But just as he did in Afghanistan, Bush chose nation-building.

Between the Afghanistan invasion and the Iraq invasion, America's strategy and tactics had taught our very observant enemies much. By the fall of 2002, it was evident to all but French Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin that an American invasion of Iraq was inevitable. From what we know now, it is apparent that in that pre-war season in 2002, the enemy made a strategic decision: to try to engage America in a long and costly insurgency in Iraq, to bleed us to death while we tried to do in Iraq what we were trying to do in Afghanistan.

In military terms, the enemy chose to make this a "meeting engagement," one on which the course of the war could be decided.

In 2002, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi entered Iraq possibly to obtain medical treatment for a wound received in Afghanistan. His "treatment" rapidly evolved into the establishment of an active al Qaeda cell in preparation for whatever America might undertake against Saddam. He was not the only terrorist to migrate to Iraq before the American invasion.

As I wrote in The American Spectator online on April 1, 2003, Saddam welcomed them in, mistaking the fact that they were flocking to Iraq as allegiance to him. They had no such allegiance. They came to Iraq to make Bush's goal of a unified and democratic Iraq impossible to achieve. They came, in an unsteady stream, not only from the terror-sponsoring nations but also from as far away as Ethiopia and Europe. After the invasion began, the unsteady stream became a flood. In late March 2003, about 900 members of the Ansar al-Islam group, part of bin Laden's terrorist network, were intercepted on their way into Iraq from Iran. Our forces killed about 200 and the rest fled back into Iran. By the time Saddam's regime was toppled, the insurgency was ready.

ALSO READY AND EAGER to help was the Shia cleric Moqtada al-Sadr. A descendant of Shia ayatollahs, al-Sadr was, in 2003, wanted on the charge of murdering Grand Ayatollah al-Khoi, a rival to his growing power. When U.S. troops got close to his stronghold in Najaf, the new U.S. prefect in Iraq--L. Paul "Jerry" Bremer--decided not to arrest al-Sadr. Sadr's militia was, and remains, Iran's instrument in Iraq, and a principal threat to Iraq's future.

After the invasion, Iran, Syria, and other terror sponsors made good on their plan to tie us down and make impossible Bush's goal of a democratic Iraq. Jerry Bremer made it easier for them by disbanding Saddam's army. When the Iraqi government decided to rehire most of them, the most elementary failure--the failure to pay when promised--drove many into the ranks of the insurgents.

In December 2005, while visiting Baghdad, I was briefed by a three-star Army general about the newly invented "explosively-formed penetrator," a sophisticated land mine that compressed and propelled an extremely dense metal "bullet" to penetrate U.S. Humvees and armored vehicles, killing many of our troops. The "EFP" was made exclusively in Iran. The general told me that we knew several of the places where the EFP's were being made. When I asked him why we weren't going into Iran to destroy those mini-factories, he said that our forces weren't permitted to do so.

On that same trip, visiting Marines in Camp Fallujah a day or two later, I asked the Marine commanding officer about the reports of jihadis coming into Iraq from Syria, mainly through the city of al-Qaim near the Syrian border. Eight months before my visit, insurgents had driven Iraqi forces out of al-Qaim. The Marine told me he had no "cross-border" problems there. The reason was that, by the time I arrived, Marine aircraft were patrolling the border hunting for jihadis. As long as the Marines were there, the insurgents weren't.

The insurgent violence peaked after the Sunni bombing of one of Shia Islam's holiest sites, the Samarra mosque, in February 2006. In 2007, General Petraeus began quelling that round of violence with his troop surge.

By then, al Qaeda had alienated many of the key Sunni chiefs in the "Sunni Triangle," and those same chiefs were willing allies as long as Petraeus left troops in their villages at night to provide security. In a July 2007 interview with the Christian Science Monitor, Petraeus talked about how U.S. troops had established a forward operating camp in one part of the Sunni Triangle: "This area was a very important sanctuary for al Qaeda for a number of years [since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion]. They would plan and organize car bombs and bring foreign fighters and launch them into Baghdad," Petraeus said. "We tried to disrupt [their operations]…but never took this away from them. That is what we're trying to do now--deny them this area." The same was true in the rest of Iraq. Where we were, violence decreased dramatically. Where we weren't, the insurgents had free rein.

Since establishing a government, the Iraqis have held more than one election in the relative security we provided. In 2005, the national election was boycotted by the Sunnis. Five years later, in March 2010, they held an election that may be the predicate to their nation's future.

The parliamentary election resulted in a split: the party of the incumbent prime minister, Nouri al -Maliki, lost by a narrow margin (89–91 seats) to former prime minister Ayad Alawi. Election day violence took at least 38 lives.

Maliki remained in office by creating a coalition with Moqtada al-Sadr's party. Though Maliki may have desired some continued U.S. presence, al-Sadr was determined to block it. Obama didn't want us to withdraw before the 2012 election, because he wanted Iraq and Afghanistan to be off the front pages while he campaigned. His representatives practically begged the Iraqis to let us stay, but the Maliki-Sadr coalition imposed conditions that even Obama couldn't accept.

Iraqi sectarian violence has been increasing since the beginning of 2011, but hasn't yet reached the levels of 2006-2007. In October, Kurdish PKK members fought a cross-border incursion by Turkish forces. Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan is apparently willing to increase military action in northern Iraq to defeat the Kurds and extend Turkey's power. And then there is Iran.

Iran's power over Iraq, largely exerted directly through Moqtada al-Sadr, is sufficient to control Iraq's future. Iran's interest is to keep Iraq unstable, and that is a low bar over which to leap.

WE HAVE ACCOMPLISHED much in Iraq. Saddam is gone and a democracy of sorts is in power. Much of the nation is--for the moment--secure and Iraq's military and security forces are as well trained as they can be. But for all the good we've done in Iraq, the illusion that is Iraq remains. General Petraeus always said that our accomplishments were fragile and reversible. They are as fragile as the idea that Iraq is a nation, and they will be reversed as quickly as Iran, Turkey, and others can make them disappear.

In a televised discussion with an Iraqi parliamentarian about four years ago, I warned that Iraq could cease to be a nation after American forces withdrew. He disagreed vehemently. He said, as I recall, that the sky will always be blue, the grass will always be green, and Iraq will always be Iraq.

The gentleman was wrong and profoundly so. The Kurds could be a nation if the Turks permitted them to be, but they will not. The Sunni in central Iraq could be a part of Syria or even Saudi Arabia, if Iran permitted it, but Iran won't. And the Shia in central and southern Iraq could be absorbed by Iran, but that too would not be more permanent than the historical Arab-Persian enmity.

As we leave Iraq, its politicians and its neighbors are positioning themselves for the next round of conflict. The Shia are spreading fear that a successful revolt against Bashar al-Assad's Syrian dictatorship could be the precursor of a more aggressive Sunni Syrian attack on Iraq. It's the sort of message Iran would send, seeking a Syrian Chamberlain to surrender some Iraqi Sudetenland to them. Nouri al-Maliki's hold on power is tenuous, and Turkey's Erdogan is glancing at Kurdish terrorists and oil fields with a jaundiced eye.

For America, there is no reason to stay in Iraq any longer. We have done what we could in pursuit of Bush and Obama's wrong-headed nation-building strategy, and in that we have failed.

Nation-building is a sort of laboratory experiment, something of a board game to be taught at a foreign policy school. When we have tried it, wherever we have tried it, we have assumed that nation-building is something that can be done within a nation's borders. That was true in post-war Japan and Germany because no other nation had the power to interfere effectively. Just the opposite is true in Iraq.

Neither Iraq nor Afghanistan can be built as a democracy for two reasons. Just as Iraq is a concatenation of neighbors without a uniting nationalism, the Afghan nation arises only in resistance to foreign invasion. And just as in Iraq, Afghanistan's neighbors will not let pass the chance to prevent it from becoming a democracy.

America's definable enemies -- the nations that sponsor Islamic terrorism -- have been fortunate that we have sunk in the self-imposed quagmire of nation-building in Iraq and Afghanistan. By choosing to fight their proxies instead of them, we have not moved closer to victory but away from it. As we leave Iraq, the picture in our rearview mirror is dimly lit with fleeting images of purple-thumbed voters, victims of street bombings, and the smiling visage of Moqtada al-Sadr.

Our enemies have learned much about us in the decade since 9/11. It is not clear that we have learned much, if anything, about them. Or about ourselves. 

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About the Author
Jed Babbin served as a Deputy Undersecretary of Defense under George H.W. Bush. He is the author of several bestselling books including Inside the Asylum and In the Words of Our Enemies. He is coauthor (with Herbert London) of the new book The BDS War Against Israel. You can follow him on Twitter@jedbabbin.