As the U.S. military draws down its troops in Iraq toward a complete pullout in 2011, the transition represents a strategic shift in focus from Iraq to Afghanistan. For the public, though, this transition year ought to prompt an assessment of our engagement in Iraq, which started with the U.S. invasion in March 2003. What are the results? At what cost? What have we learned?
Mixed Results: On some counts Al Qaeda has been weakened. Although Osama bin Laden has not been killed or captured, many high-ranking Al Qaeda leaders have been; some of the organization’s funding sources have been curtailed; and Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia has been partially cut off from its leaders in Pakistan.
Still, even a weakened Al Qaeda remains a serious threat. In July the group killed 47 members of the Sunni Awakening, and three key Al Qaeda leaders escaped from an Iraqi prison.
Democratic structures have been erected. Iraq has a constitution, a parliament, a judiciary and an electoral process. Shiite, Sunni and Kurdish parties have fielded candidates; voters have freely cast ballots. U.S. forces have fostered ethnic cooperation to help the people form a national identity. In the Awakening movement, the United States put former Sunni insurgents on its payroll and integrated them into the security forces. With Shiite leaders, the United States has explored giving the Kurds a stake in Iraq’s government.
But Iraq’s democracy is weak, corrupt, inept and paralyzed by ethnic rivalry. Leaders cannot even agree on a fair distribution of Iraq’s oil revenues. And since the March elections, no government has taken leadership. Democracy requires more than structures; it must develop from among a free people and their chosen representatives.
U.S. military leaders have adapted to a new kind of enemy. While not a stated goal, adaptation is a major accomplishment. Fighting terrorists is radically unlike the “Star Wars” scenario the military had long prepared itself to fight. In Iraq, leaders adapted military strategies and weapons to confront a new enemy: transnational, amorphous cells of Muslim extremists that communicate, raise funds and recruit online, while they infiltrate states and failed states. Gen. David H. Petraeus has reduced sectarian violence with a complex strategy: it insists that U.S. troops fight Al Qaeda, protect local civilians and create zones of stability.
Yet the U.S. volunteer military has been overstretched across two wars, without a military draft to refresh its troops or enough coalition forces to back them up.
Costs: Human. Some 4,404 U.S. soldiers have been killed, another 31,874 seriously wounded. The figures do not include the deaths of tens of thousands of Iraqi civilians. Nor does it include losses by the coalition and the Iraqi military.
Financial. The Congressional Research Service puts U.S. expenditures in Iraq at $900 billion: $390,000 per soldier per year. That does not include future payments for veterans’ education, health care or disability. Joseph Stiglitz, a Nobel-prize winning economist, projects the total cost of the Iraq war will be $3 trillion.
Political. The dishonest pretext for the invasion has bred cynicism. President George W. Bush’s “emergency” case for a pre-emptive strike against Iraq, before Saddam Hussein could use his weapons of mass destruction against the United States, cowed Congress after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, to appropriate the funds. When no such weapons were uncovered, and the official U.S. 9/11 Commission found no operational link between Al Qaeda and Mr. Hussein, political cynicism soared. The United States has also paid for its mistakes—the abuse and torture of prisoners at Abu Ghraib and the suspension of the rights of “enemy combatants,” like those at Guantánamo base in Cuba and elsewhere—even though most U.S. soldiers have served honorably. Now the public, weary of the war and its expense, wants closure.
Lessons: The political hawks who urged the invasion of Iraq expected a quick, cheap victory. But they were wrong. After seven years of fighting and nearly $1 trillion spent, what might victory mean? Better to end this mission, as President Obama said on Aug. 2: “as promised, on schedule.”
The exportation of U.S.-style democracy has turned out to be an irrational neocon fantasy, especially among peoples locked in ethnic rivalries, with no national identity, sense of minority rights or representative government.
The United States is ending a long, costly, unnecessary war. Two of its hard-won accomplishments—a weakened Al Qaeda and democratic structures in Iraq—are fragile and may be short-lived. What good the United States might have done, with virtually no loss of life and limb, had it dedicated the energy of its young people and trillions of dollars to fight disease, illiteracy or oil dependency!