While the American drawdown in Iraq has been underway for months, today is indeed a historic day both in Iraq and here at home. Today — June 30, 2009 — marks the last day U.S. combat troops will be patrolling Iraqi cities alone. From here forward, U.S. combat troops will only enter cities when invited and/or accompanied by the Iraqi government or security forces, or when escorting them as embedded trainers and/or advisors.
And while I could go on for pages about what created the conditions on the Iraqi street for this transitions (surge, anyone?) I feel it more appropriate — as a soldier who knows both Americans and Iraqis who laid down their lives for this cause of freedom — that we recognize the gravity of this achievement.
It’s certainly important to continually highlight (lest we forget) the enduring lessons of, and reason for, such a historic turnaround in Iraq from 2006 to 2009. It’s also important that we keep our ear to the ground regarding the future of Iraq, and ensure that the gains we’ve made — and goodwill we have gained — are not lost. But I won’t address those here, as I just don’t think I can do it any better than both Michael O’Hanlon or John Nagl did in today’s Washington Post.
When I served in Iraq in 2006, fellow junior officers and I would often joke that we would either be back in Iraq a few years later patrolling the same streets with less men, or we would eventually “declare victory” and leave Iraq before the job was done (a la “peace with honor”). However, today’s achievement stands in stark contrast to those cynical (we believed at the time, realistic) assessments.
Instead, a capable and trained Iraqi Army has stepped up to fill the void, and did so because American Soldiers and Marines stood their ground, protected the population, decimated al-Qaeda, and trained Iraqi Security Forces to fight like us. All the while, a flawed, yet increasingly capable, Iraqi government has made big strides in governance — checking off the so-called “benchmarks” along with way.
Violence has ticked upward in the past few weeks, but most military leaders believe this to be more an attempt by Iraq’s adversaries to breed anxiety about the transfer, than a sincere — and capable — attempt to destabilize the country. Truth be told, the level of violence remains near all-time lows in Iraq, and insurgent groups have less breathing room today than they’ve ever had.
But none of this came easy, and that is what I’m reminded of today. The historic events of June 30, 2009 didn’t come about because politicians passed resolutions or regional allies capitulated. With the help of president who showed resolve and a general who changed strategy, this day was made possible by over 4,300 American warriors who gave their lives (and over 31,000 wounded) so that others — Iraqis they barely knew — could live free.
This enduring truth is the legacy of this day. May we take pause and remember that nothing good comes without a cost, and that at the end of the day — the only thing standing between the sectarian abyss of 2006 and the triumphant transfer of 2009 — were stalwart American troops, their brave Iraqi counterparts, and an Iraqi population that rejected the violent ideology of al-Qaeda.
And it wasn’t just the surge. It was the troops who tore down Saddam’s statue for the world to see, the Soldiers and Marines who crushed insurgents in Fallujah, Ramadi, Mosul, and elsewhere, the Special Operators who hunted and killed Zarqawi, and the thousands of young men who, every day, patrolled endless miles of Iraqi roads, deserts, and cities. Every action played a role, large or small.
We may forget all this, but only at our peril. However, should we remember these facts, I believe America will make prudent decisions regarding our continued relationship with Iraq — ensuring this day is not just a mark on the calendar, but a landmark for freedom in the world.