Samarra, Iraq — The second most refreshing thing about this latest visit back to Iraq — aside from spending time with soldiers — is the respite from the never-ending drumbeat of election coverage. In my week with combat troops, I didn’t hear the names “Obama” or “McCain” once: the “who won the week?” nonsense that dominates cable news stateside doesn’t matter over here. Fighting America’s radical enemies wipes away the pettiness that impoverishes our domestic political debate — “who wins the war?” consumes those over here, not Paris Hilton or George Clooney.
What I’ve seen in Samarra, and what is happening throughout Iraq, is enough to make Americans of either party proud. After years of getting it wrong — or at best, only partly correct — in Iraq, today we are winning the war and setting the conditions for an enduring peace in that country, even in perpetual al Qaeda cesspools like Samarra. Faced with a determined enemy, hell-bent on bringing America to her knees in Mesopotamia, American military will, adaptability, and might are carrying the day.
Yet too many Americans, consumed with their daily lives or restricted by partisan blinders, see the progress and say: “Who cares? What does it matter? We should have never been there in the first place.” While I disagree with this position, I understand its origins. Americans feel betrayed by what many consider the suspect rationale for the war, have been frustrated by its early conduct, and remain wary of a war without end. These feelings don’t bother me, as they could change when victory — and therefore a drawdown — is achieved in Iraq.
What bothers me, however, is the self-aggrandizing notion that opposing the Iraq war then automatically devalues the important of the endeavor today. Today’s hardcore Iraq war detractors — politicians, pundits, and polemicists alike — all use the same lines of argument to smear the importance of the Iraq war at every turn. The surge was purely a tactical success to them, whereas Iraq overall has been a strategic blunder.
First, they claim, Iraq is not a central front in the global war on terror because al Qaeda wasn’t in Iraq in 2003; second, Iraq is a distraction from the real war in Afghanistan; third, the presence of troops in Iraq — and anywhere in the Middle East — perpetuates their hatred for us, thereby creating more jihadists. While there are plenty of overarching reasons to dispute these claims, my latest trip to Samarra suggests these assertions are not just counter-factual, but dangerously divisive.
I challenge anyone to walk the streets of Fallujah, Baqubah, Samarra, or elsewhere in Iraq and tell the locals that their city — their neighborhood — has not been an al Qaeda battlefront. Every Samarran I spoke with — every single one — brought up “al Qaeda,” pronouncing the name with a guttural disdain distinct in Iraqi accents. Most have a family member who has been killed by al Qaeda’s indiscriminate tactics, and still more have no desire to live in their seventh-century fantasy world.
“But this isn’t al Qaeda central we’re talking about,” detractors might say. “These are local thugs acting under their banner.” Wrong. Al Qaeda central has been funneling foreign fighters — primarily Syrians and Saudis — to Samarra, and throughout Iraq, for years. In fact, a few months ago, a raid south of Samarra uncovered the primary administrative hub for al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI). The bunker complex — piled with medical records, travel documents, and pay stubs — was where foreigners were sent before receiving their suicide assignments. Al Qaeda literature and videos littered the underground headquarters.