When the United States invaded Iraq in early 2003, no one – certainly not the chief architects of the war in the Bush administration – expected that combat troops would be on the ground in that country for seven and a half years.
Yet that will be the case when the withdrawal of U.S. combat forces is complete on Aug. 31, 2010. President Obama’s timetable announced Friday fulfills a campaign pledge to end U.S. involvement in Iraq as quickly as possible.
The hundreds of thousands of soldiers who have served in Iraq over the last six years – including many National Guard members, reservists and regular military from Northeast Mississippi – have earned the nation’s gratitude. The 4,250 who have died there join the honored legions who have given their all in the service of their country.
As Obama said, America’s fighting men and women have given the Iraqis a chance for a better future. They have deposed a brutal dictator and, after years of counter-insurgency and sectarian violence, brought a measure of stability out of the chaos. It’s now up to the Iraqis to seize the opportunity they’ve been presented.
Here at home, it’s the job of Americans – and especially our political and military leaders – to honestly examine the experience and draw some sober lessons from it.
Clearly, the initial U.S. strategy was flawed and the expectations of its architects decidedly wrong. The mission of overthrowing Saddam Hussein was accomplished with relative ease, but the U.S. was woefully unprepared for what followed. The situation steadily deteriorated and no one seemed to know what to do about it. Meanwhile, the chief justification for going to war – the supposed existence of weapons of mass destruction in Saddam’s arsenal – proved, at best, a mistaken assumption.
Eventually President Bush’s deployment of more troops – the “surge” – brought increased stability, but not until after significant cost in American and Iraqi resources and lives and damage to American prestige and influence in the world.
None of these strategic mistakes had anything to do with the courage and competence of U.S. troops, which were demonstrated time and again throughout this conflict.
What happens after American troops leave Iraq will determine to a large extent how history will view the decision to undertake this war. If the country evolves into a stable democracy, that will mean a more positive perspective.
But it’s clear now that no matter what happens after the U.S. leaves, this war will never be viewed as a model for strategic, political or diplomatic skill and competence. Essential to honoring the troops is to learn from the mistakes so they won’t be repeated in the future.