President Obama announced on October 21st that nearly all American troops will leave Iraq by the end of the year (though a substantial force of diplomats and mercenaries are staying behind). It’s an opportune moment to look back on the conflict and the exceptional feature length journalism produced by those covering it.
The pieces collected below include profiles of individual soldiers, big think attempts to wrap our brains around the whole conflict, and everything in between. The authors include Mark Bowden, Evan Wright, Samantha Power, Seymour Hersh, C.J. Chivers, George Packer, William Langewiesche, and many other talents besides — James Fallows, for example, who is just one of the writers who tried to articulate how future generations will think of the president who started the conflict. “Almost everything, good and bad, that has happened in Iraq since the fall of Saddam Hussein’s regime was the subject of extensive pre-war discussion and analysis” he wrote. “This is particularly true of what have proved to be the harshest realities for the United States since the fall of Baghdad: that occupying the country is much more difficult than conquering it; that a breakdown in public order can jeopardize every other goal; that the ambition of patiently nurturing a new democracy is at odds with the desire to turn control over to the Iraqis quickly and get U.S. troops out; that the Sunni center of the country is the main security problem; that with each passing day Americans risk being seen less as liberators and more as occupiers, and targets.”
Fallows added that “all this, and much more, was laid out in detail and in writing long before the U.S. government made the final decision to attack. Even now the collective efforts at planning by the CIA, the State Department, the Army and the Marine Corps, the United States Agency for International Development, and a wide variety of other groups inside and outside the government are underappreciated by the public. The one pre-war effort that has received substantial recent attention, the State Department’s Future of Iraq project, produced thousands of pages of findings, barely one paragraph of which has until now been quoted in the press. The Administration will be admired in retrospect for how much knowledge it created about the challenge it was taking on. U.S. government predictions about postwar Iraq’s problems have proved as accurate as the assessments of pre-war Iraq’s strategic threat have proved flawed. But the Administration will be condemned for what it did with what was known.” Don’t miss the rest of that piece, “Blind into Baghdad,” or the other stellar articles collected below.
All of the articles mentioned are at the link.
On the eve of the U.S. withdrawal, it may be difficult to see the extent to which Iran’s policy in Iraq is in shambles. Since the displacement of Saddam Hussein’s regime, Tehran has pursued two contradictory policies. On the one hand, the clerical state seeks cordial relations with the Iraqi government and has provided aid and commerce as a means of solidifying bilateral relations. Yet Iran has also been arming and nurturing Shiite militias that plot against authorities in Baghdad. Such a paradoxical approach seemed sustainable during the civil war, as Iraq’s hard-pressed Shiites looked to Iran for assistance and thus countenanced its interventions in their country. The end of Iraq’s war, however, has left Iran without a coherent policy. Tehran’s inability or unwillingness to resolve the fundamental contradictions in its approach have done much to alienate the Iraqi government and a populace eager to put the burdens of conflict behind it. Whereas Washington was ill-prepared to deal with the start of Iraq’s civil war, Iran seems unable to deal with its aftermath.
Whether the complete withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq is wise is an issue worthy of debate. But the imperative at hand is to ensure Iraq’s continued stability and prevent Iranian mischief in light of America’s departure. The key to this lies as much in diplomacy as in military deployments.
Today, the essential estrangement of Iraqi Shiites from the larger Arab world, and the neighboring Sunni regimes’ unease with their empowerment, makes them vulnerable to Iranian machination. A more forceful U.S. diplomacy, pressing allies to integrate Iraq into the Arab state system, would offer Baghdad additional economic partners and regional interlocutors as well as a means of reestablishing itself as a pivotal state of the Arab world. As the Middle East struggles with transitions that often pit identities against interests, Iraq can offer some useful lessons. Indeed, such a development would not only aid Iraq’s rehabilitation and assist the region political evolution but would further isolate Iran in its immediate environment.
Others, including most notably Charles Krauthammer, see this very differently. They see the American withdrawal as either proof of American defeat or a prelude to it. As I wrote before, if the Iraqis need or want more American troops, more can be arranged. It may be politically difficult in the US, but so will watching Iraq unravel and Iran blatantly and visibly exert its influence during the process. I’m not so sure that the withdrawal of American troops will lead to Iraq’s downfall. The Iraqi government, security forces, and people will have more work to do, but that is inevitable. Let’s hope it’s not too soon for them to take those responsibilities. Douglas Ollivant makes the persuasive case that the withdrawal is both necessary and worthwhile. It is well worth the read.
“The last American soldiers will cross the border out of Iraq with their heads held high, proud of their success and knowing that the American people stand united in their support for our troops,” the president said. “That is how America’s military efforts in Iraq will end.”
I’m not sure how much credit the president deserves for this decision. In recent years he had taken credit for the withdrawal although it proceeded at the pace set forward in the Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) signed by President Bush and Prime Minister Maliki, not at Obama’s pace. “But the agreement was reached with a wink-and-nod understanding that a politically palatable way would be found to keep a substantial American troop presence in the country after that date.”
Fast forward to 2011, and there is not a politically palatable reason to keep troops there because there is little reason to keep troops there at all. If the need for support increases, a new agreement can be debated. Options are now on the table, as they should be.
Possibilities being discussed are for some troops to come back in 2012, an option preferred by some Iraqi politicians who want to claim credit for ending what many here still call an occupation, even though legally it ended years ago. Other scenarios being discussed include training in the United States, in a neighboring country such as Kuwait or having some American troops come back under the auspices of NATO.
In the meantime, an agreement is in place to keep more than 150 Defense Department personnel, both military and civilian, in Iraq to secure the American Embassy, manage military sales and carry out standard duties of a defense attaché and office of security cooperation. They will operate under the authority of the State Department, which will be taking the leading role in Iraq.
American officials continued to express concern about gaps in Iraq’s security capabilities to withstand what they view as continued threats of sectarian violence and Iran’s malign influence. But if those gaps are to be addressed by American military assistance, it will have to be in a different form than imagined during negotiations that faltered, and now have failed.
Overall, it’s a good thing our troops are finally coming home.
Few will go this far:
Iraq, however, looks a lot like what Syria, and much of the rest of the Arab Middle East, might hope to be. Its vicious dictator and his family are gone, as is the rule by a sectarian minority that required perpetual repression. The quasi-civil war that raged five years ago is dormant, and Iraq’s multiple sects manage their differences through democratic votes and sometimes excruciating but workable negotiations. Though spectacular attacks still win headlines, fewer people have died violently this year in Iraq than in Mexico — or Syria.
Just as significantly, Iraq remains an ally of the United States, an enemy of al-Qaeda and a force for relative good in the Middle East. It is buying $12 billion in U.S. weapons and has requested that an American training force remain in the country next year. It recently helped get two U.S. citizens out of prison in Iran.
All of this happened because the United States invaded the country. Saddam Hussein demonstrated how he could handle a homegrown, Arab Spring-style rebellion when he used helicopter gunships to slaughter masses of Shiites in 1991. Even had his regime somehow crumbled, without the presence of U.S. troops nothing would have stopped Iraq from spiralling into the bottomless sectarian conflict that now threatens Syria.
The Arab Spring, in short, is making the invasion of Iraq look more worthy — and necessary — than it did a year ago. Before another year has passed, Syrians may well find themselves wishing that it had happened to them.
It is often said that we need to be reasonable in our expectations. Afghanistan will not be a Switzerland, we are correctly told. Perhaps if we are lucky it will be a Chad. If the Arab Spring regresses into violence and chaos, our metrics will change. A new definition of reasonable may be this: Egypt will not become a Switzerland, but hopefully it can become democratic and stable, although significantly imperfect, like Iraq.
It’s a long shot, but crazier things have happened.
Dan Zak writes a well balanced piece on whether the progress in the western Iraqi province of Al Anbar is permanent, “whether the province is in the clear or merely in the eye of a storm.”
It is worth a read, and includes one very interesting statistic: “Since the war began, 1,332 U.S. soldiers have died in Anbar, nearly one in three of all American fatalities; but none have been killed in action in the province in more than two years.” This of course does not mean that the progress is permanent and irreversible, but it offers comfort.