The last American units withdrew from Iraq at the end of 2011. Most of us breathed a sigh of relief while others believe it was premature to leave and that we’ll pay for it later. Who’s right? And what’s the final reckoning?
In a nutshell I think our troops were magnificent, our politicians awful and our national security overall has been diminished. And as for Iraq itself, we won’t know whether we set it on a new path to a unified and democratic future or a dead-end of sectarian fracturing and possible civil war for a generation.
It’s fair to say that the 30% of us who opposed the invasion from the outset, because it was unnecessary, unjustified and would create a messy aftermath to the successful toppling of Saddam Hussein were completely vindicated. On the biggest thing, in other words, we got it right.
On the other hand, those of us who opposed the so-called “surge” got it wrong, I’m happy to say, and it would be sour grapes not to admit it. In truth, we should celebrate the fact that the army was able to show sufficient flexibility to reassess its strategy in Iraq and, rather than reinforce failure, produce not only a winning formula for success but the man to implement it. General David Petraeus’s introduction of sound counterinsurgency principles, along with the modest boost in troop strength helped to turn the tide.
Of course, this success would not have been possible without the Sunni Awakening, for which we can thank al-Qaida-in-Iraq’s own murderous extremism, which drove the Sunni tribes of Anbar to make peace with the Americans and turn on the terrorists. This meant that 70% of the Sunni insurgents stopped shooting at us and, instead, provided valuable intelligence and other assistance which led to the effective defeat of al-Qaida. Of course this too was part of the American counterinsurgency strategy but let’s not underrate the role it played in the US victory.
Yet the cost of this “victory” was horrendous. It is now accepted that 100,000 Iraqis were killed as a result of the invasion and the awful chaos and violence that followed. A tad under 4,500 Americans were killed and scores of allied soldiers, mostly Brits, were also lost. The toll in wounded including maimed civilians and soldiers hardly bears thinking about. The damage done to Iraq’s infrastructure was enormous; even now, for example, Iraqis only enjoy a few hours of electricity on any given day.
In strategic terms the invasion has to be viewed as a disaster since one consequence has been to significantly enhance the power of America’s nemesis in the region, Iran, since Iraq is no longer the counterweight to Iranian influence it once was in its pre-invasion days.
Even our long term relationship with Iraq cannot be taken for granted. There was no festoon of flowers along the route into Kuwait taken by the last American units to leave. Iraqis are at best ambivalent about the US invasion. Even those who benefit the most from Saddam Hussein’s fall wonder at the price they paid in terms of lives lost or ruined, and a broken country that we leave still in need of serious repair.
Back in America one of our major political parties obsesses about budget deficits whilst protecting our wealthiest citizens from overdue tax increases. This, when we face a huge and looming bill for the life-time care of thousands of former American servicemen and women who sustained permanent physical or mental injuries from this war and the one still waging in Afghanistan. We can only hope that the GOP will one day soon return to the reality that most of us live in and leave their alternate, fantasy world behind.
Finally, we learned that our volunteer military is both blessing and curse: A blessing because it performed with incredible professionalism, bravery and military competence even as the war increasingly and bitterly divided the country. Our servicemen and women never faltered in fulfilling their duty and it’s hard to find the words to praise them enough. But the volunteer military is also a curse because it enables idiot presidents with their own agenda to send it into unwise and unnecessary wars with few political consequences because most of us have no loved ones at risk. The few risked all while the many risked nothing.