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.
While the vast majority of the leadership and financing for AQI comes from outside Iraq, most of their foot soldiers in Samarra are indeed locals. Nonetheless, unlike Americans who wring our hands over ‘foreign versus local’ fighters, Samarrans I spoke with draw no such distinction — same ideology, same brand, same violent tactics. Al Qaeda made Iraq its central front in 2004, and Iraqis faced the consequences. Today, al Qaeda central wishes it had chosen more wisely.
As for the “distraction” argument, war detractors actually have it backwards — Iraq has actually proven to be a distraction for al Qaeda. Their choice to fight in Iraq was, in retrospect, a strategic blunder. (Although it wouldn’t have been, had we withdrawn as some proposed). Al Qaeda had little indigenous support there prior to 2003, and Iraq’s educated and largely secular population was not predisposed to radical Islam. As a result, al Qaeda’s defeat in places like Samarra has denied them terrain for decades to come; and has once again relegated them to the hills of Afghanistan and Pakistan. Al Qaeda will indeed think twice next time they attempt to expand their power base.
America must re-commit to winning the war in Afghanistan as well — plain and simple. We need to kill Osama bin Laden and every last one of his henchmen. However — unlike Iraq — Afghanistan is not advantageous terrain for American warfighters, as al Qaeda benefits from widespread tribal support, safe haven in Pakistan, and bountiful organic funding sources. While I’m confident that General Petraeus will recalibrate U.S. strategy in Afghanistan, it will be a tough fight — requiring additional troops, time, and resources.
Lastly, war detractors continue to propagate the myth that the terrorists and insurgents are “anti-American antibodies” trying to keep their body politic healthy. The American presence in Iraq, they argue, is the cause of the sickness there. If we just leave, everything will get better. My experiences on the ground in Samarra — and the facts of the new counterinsurgency strategy — directly refute this. As we have surged into neighborhoods — to protect the Iraqi people, earning their trust, and benefiting from their help — violence has dropped, and locals have turned against the jihadists.
American troops are tolerated, even welcomed when they effectively provide security; but their presence is cursed when it does not accompany progress. Violence persists not because American troops are present, but when we are present and feckless. For years, al Qaeda exploited our inability to protect the Iraqi people, spreading rumors that our incompetence was actually part of a larger conspiracy to keep them suffering. The security structures American forces have helped build — of, with, and for the people — has changed this. One trip to Samarra would demonstrate this to any objective observer.
The world will continue to watch Iraq. Whether Americans like it or not, what ultimately happens on the streets of Samarra — militarily, politically, and economically — will reverberate through the Middle East and the world. Will our allies see a strong America that wins its wars and stands by its friends? Or will our enemies — namely Iran — be emboldened by perceived American weakness?
Osama bin Laden and his followers jumped at the chance to “bleed out” the Americans in Iraq, believing we didn’t have the stomach for a prolonged fight on two fronts. Thanks to the political courage of a few — and the military courage of many — American have proven bin Laden wrong. Their victory in Iraq would have emboldened al Qaeda to expand their ambitions; instead, their military and ideological defeat has sent the “faithful” back to Afghanistan with their tail between their legs. May we finish them there.
– Captain Pete Hegseth of the Army National Guard served in Samarra, Iraq with the 101st Airborne from December 2005 to July 2006 and has returned there as an embedded correspondent for NRO as part of Vets for Freedom’s “Back to Iraq” effort.