Four years ago yesterday, I awoke to a deafening explosion; al-Qaeda-affiliated insurgents had destroyed the golden dome of the Al-Askariya Mosque in Samarra, leaving only smoldering ruins visible from our command post. The bombing sent Iraq spiraling into near-genocidal chaos, with American troops caught undermanned and ill-prepared.
The preceding year in Iraq — 2005 — had seen the U.S. retrench to large, sprawling bases, reducing its footprint in order to allow Iraqi forces to “take the lead.” This approach — which briefed well on PowerPoint in the Baghdad Green Zone — was disconnected from the violent reality on the streets. Iraqi security forces were not ready, al-Qaeda and Iranian proxies sensed vulnerability, and the country slid into sectarian civil strife.
Today, the golden dome is nearly rebuilt, and Samarra is improving. Local elections have empowered Samarra’s representatives, city streets are filled with commerce, and local sons police the streets. Thanks to a renewed, and effectual, American commitment during the surge, Samarra is a city reborn. This success story has been mirrored throughout the country.
Yet the success of the surge does not guarantee a future of stability and democracy in Iraq. Despite the incredible reduction in violence and years of political reconciliation, the future of Iraq remains highly uncertain; America’s enemies are still active. In fact, the current situation in Iraq raises an important question: Will this year build on the progress of 2008 and 2009, or will Iraq regress to its 2005 state?
The words of a “senior U.S. military official who has spent years in Iraq” published recently in the Washington Post give voice to many of my concerns: “All we’re doing is setting the clock back to 2005. The militias are fully armed, and al-Qaeda in Iraq is trying to move back from the west. These are the conditions now, and we’re sitting back looking at PowerPoint slides and whitewashing.”
In 2005, the Pentagon and senior military leadership were wedded to U.S. disengagement and hell-bent on pushing Iraqi Security Forces into the lead. I witnessed my battalion attempting to hand over responsibility for huge swaths of land to the Iraqi Army, knowing they had neither the capacity nor the fortitude to do the job. There was a master timeline in the Green Zone somewhere, and we followed it.