08.20.10

Stop Pretending the War Is Over

The departure of the last combat brigade from Iraq may have signaled to one soldier that “We’ve won!”—but not even the most optimistic American general believes the insurgency will end soon, says Andrew J. Bacevich.

Within hours of the much ballyhooed withdrawal of the last U.S. combat brigade from Iraq, Wikipedia declared that the Iraq war had “ended on August 19, 2010.” Although no doubt reflecting the fondest hopes of the Obama administration and of the American soldiers who have for so many years fought in Iraq, that judgment is unlikely to stand.

The Anglo-American forces that invaded Iraq in March 2003 did so for the purpose of deposing Saddam Hussein. The war’s architects expected this to be an easy and straightforward task, one that they approached with a surgeon’s expectations: They planned to cut open the diseased organ, remove the cancer, close, pat the patient on the head, and be done, moving on to the next sickly Muslim nation requiring Washington’s saving ministrations.

For the rest of us to pretend that this unnecessary and ill-advised war has ended would only add one more lie to a pile that is already too large.

They miscalculated badly. In fact, once exposed to the elements, the organ became the site of virulent infections. As chief surgeon, George W. Bush—not especially adept to begin with—ended up with a much bigger problem than he had bargained for.

The war launched to achieve regime change in Baghdad metastasized into three wars. First there was the war to replace Saddam Hussein, imposing a pro-Western Iraqi government in his place. Second was the Iraq civil war, touched off as a result of Saddam’s overthrow, Iraqi tribes, sects, and ethnic groups vying for power in the resulting vacuum and more than happy to use violence to achieve their ends. Finally was the jihadi war, radicals from across the Islamic world seizing on the chaos created by the Americans to convert Iraq into a new battlefield in their campaign to purge the umma of occupying Western infidels.

Seven and a half years later, what can we say of these three wars?

The war to replace Saddam with a legitimate, pro-Western government remains, to be generous, a work in progress. Washington has long since shelved all the Bush-era jabbering about democracy, liberal values, and protecting the rights of Iraqi women. At this juncture, the United States would happily settle for an apparatus in Baghdad capable of managing Iraq’s own affairs while posing no danger to Iraq’s neighbors. (Allowing Western access to Iraq’s oil reserves would qualify as a welcome bonus.) What we have at present is a gaggle of parties and interests that may be capable of conducting elections but have yet to demonstrate any capacity to govern—indeed, even to form a government. As a courtesy, we may refer to the government of Iraq, but it exists, if at all, only in a nominal sense.

The tribal-sectarian war is, for moment, held in abeyance. Whether it has ended definitively ranks as a great unknown. The Kurds, having achieved de facto autonomy, are likely to prove content with their winnings, as long as the remainder of Iraq accepts the privileged status that they have carved out for themselves. In the remainder of Iraq, Sunnis and Shiites will continue to compete for the upper hand. President Obama may hope that the competition will rely chiefly on nonviolent means. But as his own presidency has amply demonstrated, only on the odd occasion does hope translate into reality.

Louise Roug: My Surreal Return to IraqMeanwhile, and most significantly, the jihadist insurgency continues. Bombs routinely detonate in the streets of Baghdad and other Iraqi cities, inflicting a level of mayhem that anywhere else would be seen as evidence of impending state failure. Senior American officers, reading from their assigned script, insist that Iraqi security forces are doing a terrific job. Aided for the moment by U. S. Advise and Assist Brigades—a name that Orwell surely would have appreciated—the Iraqis have about another year before the last American soldier goes home and complete responsibility for internal and external security will be theirs. No one, not even the most optimistic American general, believes that the insurgency will have been extinguished by that time.

A television clip showing that last combat brigade crossing from Iraq back into Kuwait featured an exuberant American soldier excitedly declaring, “We’ve won!” That soldier’s work is done and we should grant him a moment of satisfaction. Yet for the rest of us to pretend that this unnecessary and ill-advised war has ended would only add one more lie to a pile that is already too large.

Andrew J. Bacevich is professor of history and international relations at Boston University. His new book, Washington Rules: America's Path to Permanent War, is just out.