The United States has not lost the war in Iraq. I know this isn’t a popular opinion in popular culture or even the military. Operation Iraqi Freedom has become the textbook example of how not to conduct a war, how not to use the military, how not to fight terrorism, you name it. I am not saying we did a great job during that conflict, and I don’t think that many would try to argue that. I do think that while we made many mistakes, we didn’t lose the war then and we haven’t lost the war now.
A key assumption I’m making here is that we are still fighting the same war we fought when we invaded Iraq in 2003. We are still fighting in Iraq, even though we don’t have boots on the ground. We have planes in the skies, advisors with the Iraqis, and there are Delta Force operators running around killing people and breaking things. Unlike the SEALs they won’t make four books, two documentaries, a TV show and a feature-length film out of it, but rest assured they are there. Our enemies are the same they were then (with the exception of Saddam and bin Laden, because we snuffed out those shining beacons of civility).
So, if we are fighting a war, then what are the aims? In our second season match-up with Iraq, George Bush stated that the goal was to create an independent, democratic, and stable Iraq allied with the United States. Another implied goal was to deny terrorists a safe haven from which to attack the West. So how have we done? It seems that we’ve done terribly. ISIS is in control of Iraqi territory to the north and the government troops seem to have been largely ineffective in combating them. The government does not have a good history of smoothing sectarian tension between the Sunnis and the Shi’a. Different rebel groups have carved out swaths of territory. It seems to be a lost cause.
Between the Articles of Confederation, various rebellions that were quelled, and British intervention in 1812, the United States didn’t exactly build itself overnight.
The reality is that although the Iraqi government is certainly struggling mightily, it is gaining ground and solidifying its gains. It is in fact democratically elected, even though it doesn’t seem like it. The government that formed in 2005 is parliamentary in nature, and even though it’s had its rough patches, it’s gotten better. The Sunni boycott of the first national elections in 2005 caused a Shi’a majority in the government which led to Iraqi-sponsored sectarian violence. Since then the government has reformed its election laws and procedures, meaning that wider swaths of the population feel encouraged to participate in the government because they now know the consequences of not making their voices heard.
To compare, how long did America struggle after its Revolutionary War? Between the Articles of Confederation, various rebellions that were quelled, and British intervention in 1812, the United States didn’t exactly build itself overnight. We had internal struggles caused by taxation, we needed to reform an ineffective system of government that treated states almost as mini-countries, and we dealt with the empire of Great Britain who still wanted to impose its will. Hell they burned down the White House. Even a century into our “democratic experiment” we had to fight a war to keep the country from splitting up over the use of slavery. The point is that we’ve had a rough road to democracy, and we need to understand that Iraq can’t take our Western system of democracy and apply it to the Middle East overnight, just as we couldn’t perfect our form of democracy overnight.
The last point that most people bring up is that the Iraqi military is ineffective. I certainly wouldn’t say they are a bunch of Rangers, but they are effective enough. They were pushed, kicked, and prodded out of Northern Iraq by ISIS fighters last year, but since then they have learned and adapted. Their special forces are very proficient and have been able to protect cities such as Tikrit and Baghdad from the onslaught. Since we disbanded Saddam’s military in 2003, the current Iraqi military is nearly brand new, and as any new organization they need time to learn and grow. In the meantime, they have been containing ISIS to a remote sector of their country and I am confident that they will develop the proficiency to drive them out eventually.
In short, I don’t argue that we won in 2011, I don’t argue that Iraq is a successful state, and I don’t argue that we are done intervening in the country. I do want to combat the pessimism surrounding our efforts there in recent years. Iraq is weak but growing stronger. It’s only been 4 years since we left, and Foreign Policy ranks it higher on their Fragile State Index than Afghanistan. It’s higher than Syria, a dictator state in which we did not intervene. Its government has a rough history with sectarian conflict, but it’s getting better. It’s miles ahead of Saddam’s regime to be sure. The military has been kicked around a lot, but our influence and the influence of Iraq’s elite formations are helping it get better and better. There are many reasons to be cynical about Iraq and our role in forming it, but for a change lets be optimistic. Look what it did for our country (thanks France!).
[U.S. Army photo by Rachel Larue]
This is a very interesting article, however it is equally difficult to read. The difficulty is not the fault of the author, but rather the design of the website. The use of a narrow gray font on a white background is INCREDIBLY difficult to read due to the lack of contrast. I have had to enlarge the print to nearly it’s max in order to make the text easier to read. It’s a small change, but it would go a LONG way in improving the user experience on this site.
I like the optimistic view that Jack has of the future of Iraq, but I think we are better served as a country (and Army) by looking at where we failed and what we could have done better. Obviously we can’t change the past at this point, but it doesn’t mean we should obscure the facts and just pat ourselves on the back. We should try to learn from it. I would have expected that as a history and strategy specialist, Jack would spend more time thinking through the second, third, fourth order effects of OIF, as well as some of the counterfactuals.
The Fragile State Index doesn’t go back before the start of OIF, so it is hard to use it to assess how much Iraq has improved as a result of OIF. North Korea, for example, has moved quite a bit further down the list since FSI was started. The comparison to democracy in the US and Iraq is also problematic. There is a very different historical and social context- and no reason to blindly assume Iraq will follow the same trajectory. Haiti has had a much longer “democratic experiment” and is still very high on the index. Other countries have transitioned from authoritarian rule to democracy without US intervention. And if we want to take the long view, it is probably worth considering US relations with Saddam during the Cold War as well.
If Jack wants to argue that Iraqi institutions are improving (as a result of us not losing OIF), he should provide better evidence. It’s getting better (or better and better) is not quantifiable. Did OIF make the Middle East more stable and the West (especially Europe) more secure? Do the improvements in Iraq justify the commitment and expenditure of US blood and treasure?
I was disappointed by the tone and some of the content, especially on a website that anyone can read. Don’t write Delta Force operators are “running around killing people and breaking things” – they are conducting surgical strike / direct action – they are killing terrorists / enemy (admittedly, they are people, but Jack’s statement could easily be taken out of context by someone that either believes or wants to imply we are deliberately killing noncombatants). Don’t assume that the average civilian has an understanding of LOAC, ROE etc. For example, I have actually had to explain to college educated Americans that the US military does not torture people (illegal and you go to jail!). Likewise, we didn’t “snuff out” UBL or Saddam. Saddam was tried and hung by an Iraqi tribunal. I would also not use “second season match-up with Iraq” to refer to OIF. The internet, and especially a professional forum, isn’t the barracks, team room or OPCEN. Keep the potential audience in mind. Words mean things. Try briefing crush, hammer, pummel etc in a mission statement or commander’s intent at MCCC. This shouldn’t be different.
Mentioning the SEAL movies and books was unnecessary and detracted from the article. Regardless of personal opinion (based on reading their books or seeing the movies?), the blue on blue isn’t called for. It’s a joint environment and Jack may even be working with NSW down the road.
Jack – I’m not trying to put you on blast – great you are thinking and writing – and optimism is good. I’m assuming many readers of this site are cadets and this feedback might be beneficial to them as well. If you want to discuss further offline, reply to this comment and I’ll request your email through the contact button.