John F. Burns, The New York Times’s senior foreign correspondent, covered the months leading up to the war in Iraq in 2002 and 2003 from inside Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, then served as Baghdad bureau chief from 2004 to 2007.
LONDON — Nine weeks left, and common sense at last, after nearly nine years of agony and misgiving: that, assuredly, has been the reaction of many Americans to President Obama’s announcement this month that the last American troops will be withdrawn from Iraq by Dec. 31. Polls have long shown that a majority of Americans considered the invasion of Iraq in March 2003 to have been a major mistake, the costs in lost American and Iraqi lives too high, the burden of at least three-quarters of a trillion dollars in American military spending too heavy for American taxpayers to bear, the damage to America’s standing in the world likely to take long years to repair.
History will render its own judgment on the ways that America’s war was brought to an end, and those negatives, incontrovertible as they seem now, may in time be weighed against other factors still in the balance, including the price to be paid for pulling out in terms of the consequences for Iraq’s tortured course to a post-Saddam Hussein political settlement. At the worst, as some high-ranking Iraqi officials and American military commanders warned in the course of the negotiations that preceded Mr. Obama’s Oct. 21 announcement, the removal of the tripwire that a residual American force of some size would have represented could open the way for a new fracturing of Iraq’s fragile and fractious political center.
Down that road, in the darkest reckonings, lie the possibility of worsening violence by Sunni and Shiite militias; [why is this a bad thing? Why is this not a good thing? Does John F. Burns, senior correspondent for the New York Times, not think the Iran-Iraq War was, for the world's non-Muslims, a good thing? Does he not agree it should ideally have gone on forever?] a resurgence of al Qaeda as a murderous wild card; an intensification of covert Iranian meddling and offsetting manipulations by Iran’s enemies among the region’s Sunni-majority states; and heightened factional strains within the Iraqi security forces, even their gradual disintegration.[the list of horribles is a list of desiderata if the goal is understood to be the weakening of the Camp of Islam. This is something that is apparently as impossible for John F. Burns to conceive as it is for any of those who have been making policy in Washington in the last decade. Why?] With American troops gone, and with them the role they have played as the ultimate guarantor of the new constitutional rules adopted under American occupation, all bets, at least potentially, will be off.
// < ![CDATA[ var _obj = new NYTMM.FadingSlideShow($("NYTMM_Embed890"),163,100,chameleonData); _obj.setPhotoData(chameleonData.photos); // ]]>Interactive Feature Drawing Down, Moving Ahead
The end of the combat mission in Iraq will open a precarious new chapter in the Iraqi-American post-invasion relationship.
Could there be a return to the incipient civil war of 2005 to 2007? A military coup in Baghdad, and the rise of a new Iraqi strongman (if not, all would hope, in the brutal tradition of Saddam)? Yes, to both questions — though the argument that has prevailed in American deliberations is that both outcomes are unlikely, and in any case ultimately unavoidable, if American troops are not to be held hostage interminably to the insolubles of Iraqi politics. Optimists in the White House and State Department, and proud office-holders in the government of Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki, insist that the new Iraqi institutions, including the armed forces and the supremacy of parliament, are sufficiently rooted now, and the resolve of most Iraqis not to allow a return to chaos so firm, that there can be no going back.
In any case, Mr. Maliki was unable to muster the political backing he needed, particularly from the powerful political bloc headed by the cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, for giving the Pentagon the guarantees it wanted of indemnity from Iraqi courts, a condition that has been a staple of all American deployments overseas, including Germany, where American forces have been based continuously since 1945. Those blocking the indemnity surely knew what they were doing in placing an effective veto on any continued American troop presence. In the case of Mr. Sadr — the perennial American nemesis in Iraq, a man who twice led uprisings against American troops and the mentor of a street politics that turned on seething demonstrations calling for an American withdrawal — he may well see the Obama announcement as his greatest triumph, removing the ultimate impediment to his own vaunting political ambitions.
But Mr. Sadr is only a symbol of a much wider concern. The unremitting reality of the new Iraq is that America will be leaving behind a country that has failed to resolve any of the deep fissures that lay hidden, and suppressed, under the carapace of Saddam’s tyranny. Over the best part of a decade since America set out to engender the attitudes fundamental to the building of a civil society, perilously little has been achieved that promises to survive the American era: no abiding level of trust between rival sectarian, regional and political groups, rooted in the recognition of an overriding common interest; no ingrained willingness to compromise, on the division of power, and, in Iraq, on disputes over territory, division of the nation’s oil wealth, and other spoils; and no convincing commitment to forsake retribution and vengeance for past ills, real or imagined.
These are Iraqi, not American, failures, and it may yet be that Iraqis, in their own reckoning of the best and the worst that the American invasion brought them, will, over the years, come to a more balanced ledger than seemed likely during the most tumultuous years of the occupation. Anybody watching the terrible, bloodied end of Muammar el-Qaddafi in the heat and dust of Libya this month — his summary execution by the rebels, and all the foreboding that carried for Libya as it sets out to construct its own future — could pause to reflect on the more orderly, or at least less barbaric, capture of Saddam Hussein by American troops in December 2003.
There was no lynching then, but a prolonged interrogation in American custody that guaranteed Saddam’s safety; and, ultimately a trial, flawed as it was, as was a court-approved execution, touched by elements of mob justice. The dissimilarities were instructive, but so, too, the similarities, in the popular rejoicing that came with both dictators’ ends. That, on balance, will surely be counted among the positives of the American war, to be set against the chaos, and the loss of more than 100,000 civilian lives, that Iraq has endured as the price of the war.
Mr. Obama left room in his announcement for an agreement in future negotiations with the Iraqi government on basing a modest-size American training mission in Iraq, or perhaps in neighboring Kuwait, after the last main force troops have left. But even at the thicker end of the numbers that have been under discussion in recent months — 3,000 to 5,000, based in Iraq — the force levels, and their limited combat capabilities, might not have been a sufficient tripwire to inhibit the extremes of political mayhem. To achieve that would have required the much larger American residual force, up to 50,000, that was under discussion since the Dec. 31, 201,1 withdrawal date was affirmed by Mr. Obama last year.
That was an option that won strong favor among some powerful Iraqis, including some in Mr. Maliki’s inner circle, who had been in the forefront of those demanding an end to the American occupation in the years when the demagogic rewards of playing to the Iraqi gallery came at no practical risk, since there was no prospect, then, of that happening. In the past year, in particular, with the prospect of facing the future without the steadying presence of American troops pressing in, an increasing band of Iraqis in the new establishment in Baghdad have been saying, some publicly and many more privately, that it is too soon for the American hand to be removed. One of the most powerful of these voices was that of Babakir Zebari, Iraq’s army chief of staff — a Kurd, incidentally, and thus by nature sensitive to changes that could make the Kurds hostage again to an aggressive, winner-takes-all government in Baghdad — who has said that Iraq’s forces will not be ready to guarantee the country’s security on their own until 2020.
As would be expected, none of the worst-case possibilities found voice in Mr. Obama’s announcement about the withdrawal. For anybody who experienced the war at its worst, there was a sense of deep relief for America, and a reaffirmation of the workings of American democracy, in hearing Mr. Obama’s resonant words: “After nearly nine years, America’s war in Iraq will be over.” And: “The last American soldier 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 support of our troops. This is how America’s military efforts in Iraq will end.”
No cut-and-run here, but the fulfillment of a pledge Mr. Obama made in his 2008 campaign, and of a political and military plan going back well before that, which was hinged to a progressive winding down of the American military involvement. While the mechanics of the drawdown were often argued over bitterly, among American commanders as much as among American politicians, the basic aim of handing the security of Iraq back to its own forces — “We stand down, they stand up” — has been unwavering since Gen. George W. Casey was the American commander in Baghdad from 2004 to 2007. General Casey, of course, gave way to Gen. David H. Petraeus, who emerged as the dominant American commander of the war after President George W. Bush chose him to replace General Casey and to oversee the 30,000-strong “surge” of 2007-9 that saw such a rapid turnaround of America’s fortunes in the conflict.
General Casey argued against the surge, and paid with his command for his persistence, but his arguments then are worth recalling as the American war approaches its end. A few weeks before the surge was announced, and at a time when the arguments over the surge were being fought out in tense teleconferences between the White House and General Casey and his command staff in Baghdad, the general explained his views as we flew over the Iraqi desert in a Black Hawk helicopter after visiting an Iraqi police training base 100 miles south of Baghdad.
His voice barely audible in my headset over the roar of the rotors, he said that he agreed that military gains, particularly in Baghdad, could be won with the five additional combat brigades that Mr. Bush — and General Petraeus — favored. But without progress among Iraqi leaders to a broad political “reconciliation,” he said, any gains would be temporary, and vulnerable to being reversed when the course toward withdrawal resumed. The net of it, he said, was that the expenditure of more American lives, and more American money, as well as further strains on America’s already depleted fighting capability, could end with the country back where it was at the outset, dependent on recalcitrant Iraqi politicians (not the word he used) for the exit from Iraq that Americans so clearly wanted. “At some point,” he said, “they have to understand that we’re going.”
That point, barring some last-minute reversal by Mr. Maliki and his colleagues, appears now to have been reached. It may be too soon for their political agenda, and it may risk America having to watch from afar as the sands of Iraq bury all it had hoped to bequeath, in terms of a stable, sustainable government and at least the foundations of a civil society. But America, for all its mistakes — including, as so many believe, the decision to invade in the first place — will at least have the comfort of knowing that it did pretty much all it could do, within the limits of popular acceptance in blood and treasure, to open the way for a better Iraqi future. ["blood and treasure" -- if anyone writes that phrase, or uses it, thinking he is hitting a high churchillian note, he's wrong -- for many decades it has been a comical phrase, used by the careless, and those who use it deserve ridicule]]