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.
This year in Iraq looks eerily similar. With U.S. combat troops set to leave Iraq by 2011, the Obama administration remains myopically focused on ending the war, and has all but declared the overarching battle for Iraq over. The president’s State of the Union address this year mentioned Iraq only once: “I promised that I would end this war [Iraq], and that is what I am doing as president.”
This statement sums up the Obama administration’s unfortunate approach to Iraq. To the administration, Iraq is not a war to be won, nor a mission to complete. Rather, it’s merely a war to end: Change the name, blame it on Bush out of one side of your mouth, and declare victory out of the other. This is not serious or effective foreign policy, and our enemies know it.
While the Obama administration quits the war, the enemies of a free Iraq, both inside and outside of Iraqi institutions, are doing their best to turn back the clock to 2005. President Obama’s ironclad insistence on complete withdrawal — as opposed to the flexible and gradual withdrawal plan initiated by President Bush — has given renewed hopes to a demoralized and nearly defeated enemy. Sunni insurgent groups have stepped up attacks recently (although such attacks are still at historically low levels), there are credible reports that Mofqtada al-Sadr wants back into the militia business, and Iran continues to meddle on all fronts — a Molotov cocktail of factors tailor-made for renewed violence.
Politically, two years of surge-induced progress toward sectarian compromise has been jeopardized by the Shia government’s decision to ban over 500 viable Sunni candidates from the ballot in the upcoming parliamentary elections. Some Sunni leaders have called for a boycott of the elections, which could leave Sunni towns such as Samarra underrepresented in parliament, just as they were after the 2005 nationwide vote.
The U.S. still has time to avoid a 2005 redux. President Obama could immediately change the calculus in Baghdad by signaling a willingness to peg U.S. force-reduction levels to conditions on the ground, rather than to a rigid timeline. Additionally, Obama should redouble efforts to ensure that U.S. diplomats and military leaders remain actively — and forcefully — involved in the Iraqi political and military decision-making processes. America’s hard-fought gains cannot be left to a policy of disengaged hope.
As the Bush administration understood in 2003 — and many of us experienced firsthand in the years following — Iraq is a country capable of secular institutions, relative prosperity, and fitful democracy. Suppressed by years of dictatorship, the Iraqi people yearn to live free — evidenced by their willingness to courageously partner with U.S. forces to depose a brutal dictator, defeat Islamic radicalism, and foster quasi-secular democracy.
The Obama administration boldly committed much-needed U.S. forces to Afghanistan to turn the tide there. But while we must kill the enemies of America and deny them haven in Afghanistan, that country is of little long-term strategic value to the United States. Iraq, on the other hand, is a historic and economic focal point of the Middle East, and truly can be a beacon of democracy in a region desperately grasping for freedom.
For America’s sake, Samarra’s future, and liberty’s flame, President Obama must show the personal courage, political humility, and strategic eye to finish the job on freedom’s front line.
– Capt. Pete Hegseth, who served in Iraq with the 101st Airborne Division from 2005 to 2006, is executive director of Vets for Freedom.