Debunking Myths about the “Lost” War


By: Greg C. Reeson

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s April proclamation that the Iraq war was “lost” and the surge ordered by President Bush last January was not accomplishing anything generated a significant amount of debate about the conflict and America’s prospects for a successful outcome. In fairness to Senator Reid, the war was not going well for the United States at the time, with sectarian violence spinning out of control, U.S. and Iraqi casualties mounting daily, and the political process in Baghdad hopelessly stalled. Just seven months earlier, a Marine Corps intelligence officer had declared that prospects for improving security in the troubled al-Anbar Province were dim, and that the U.S. would probably not be able to salvage the region.

Senator Reid’s statement was a reaction to the steady stream of bad news coming out of Iraq, much of which had been based on false perceptions about what was really happening on the ground. Now, with surge operations in full swing, news about Iraq has virtually disappeared from evening newscasts and print media publications and the Congress has focused its attention on other hot issues that will likely prove important in next year’s elections. You see, the problem is that good news coming out of Iraq means that previous declarations about the war being lost might have been premature, and long-held perceptions about Iraq might be proven false.

After the last of the surge troops arrived in June, coalition forces began offensive operations designed to secure the population, and the peace, first in Baghdad and al-Anbar, and then in other key areas of the country. The results thus far have been nothing short of astonishing. Of course, several headlines over the past few days reported that 2007 was the deadliest year yet for U.S. forces in Iraq, but those reports wrongly glossed over the dramatic turn of events that has occurred since the surge began in earnest in July.

Over the past few months, U.S. military and Iraqi civilian casualties have declined significantly and reports indicate that attacks involving indirect fire weapons such as mortars and rockets are at their lowest levels in nearly two years. Additionally, attacks using roadside bombs have dropped sharply and sectarian violence is down throughout the country, with fewer and fewer bodies turning up on the streets of Baghdad and other key cities. Finally, Sunni insurgents in Anbar have been working with coalition forces to rid the province of al-Qaeda fighters, marking a significant shift in an area where all seemed hopeless not that long ago. All indications are that the situation in Iraq has gotten better, giving those of us here at home a great opportunity to clear our heads and reexamine those perceptions about Iraq that may have been misplaced.

One of the most popular misperceptions about Iraq is that the war is really about controlling Iraq’s oil reserves. The truth is that the Iraq war, no matter why it began, is critical to the long-term strategic interests of the United States. The war is not about oil, freedom, or even imposing a Jeffersonian democracy in the heart of the Middle East. While the Iraqis are enjoying freedoms they have not known for decades, what’s at stake in this war is nothing less than the stability of a region that has known nothing but violent conflict for much of its history. Providing that stability involves defeating foreign fighters in Iraq, ensuring Sunni participation in the Iraqi government, preventing genocide, and containing Iran’s growing ambitions to dominate not just Iraq, but most of the Middle East. An American loss in Iraq would pave the way for a failed state that would result in a humanitarian crisis, extended Iranian influence in the region, and a victory for extremists who rightly see Iraq as the central front in the war on terror.

Another popular myth is that the United States is fighting this war alone. More than 20 other nations have forces in Iraq, and scores of countries are contributing contract and service-type personnel critical to everyday life. Each of these nations is contributing within its own resource capabilities, and each is standing firm with the United States during this war. Of course, none of these states are able to participate on a level commensurate with that of the United States, but none are as wealthy or productive as we are. The point is that they are there, when they certainly don’t have to be. And what about the Iraqis themselves? Despite incessant attacks on individuals volunteering for service in the security forces, Iraqis keep showing up by the thousands at recruiting drives. Some are doing it for money, and some are doing it for love of country. But what’s important is that they are still reporting for duty. And while the United States has suffered nearly 4,000 casualties in Iraq, the death rate among those serving in the Iraqi security forces is exponentially higher. Iraqis are paying a much higher price in blood than the United States is. To withdraw from Iraq now would mean abandoning allies that have stood by our side through the carnage of the past four years, and deserting those Iraqis who have chosen to trust in the United States and stand up for the future of their country.

Perhaps the most important misperception about Iraq is that the war is already lost. Quite the contrary, significant progress is being made, partially due to the surge of American troops during the second half of this year, and partially due to decisions by Iraqis to turn against foreign fighters, and more importantly, to stop the sectarian fighting that was ripping the country apart. Iraq is not in a full-scale civil war, and never was. Instead, multiple parties including al-Qaeda, Sunnis, Shiites, criminal elements, and Iranians have been conducting several small wars against coalition forces and against each other. Shifting alliances and military successes have reduced the level of violence to a point where Iraq could be turning the proverbial corner.

Of course, the positive trends in Iraq are still very new, and very fragile. But Iraqis are now free from the grip of a mass murdering dictator and in a position to determine their own future. Economic development is progressing steadily and decades of infrastructure neglect are being reversed. The quality of life for Iraqis is improving, and while the central government in Baghdad is still highly dysfunctional and mostly ineffective, governmental processes are beginning to work from the bottom up, with local leaders setting the tone for the nation as a whole. Morale is high among coalition forces who are now beginning to see the results of their hard fighting, and among Iraqis who truly want a peaceful future for their country and now realize that it is within their grasp.

The Iraq war is not lost, but it is also not yet won. We are at a critical point in what I believe will ultimately be viewed as the defining battle of our time. There are significant strategic interests at stake, not only for the United States, but for Iraq, the Middle East, and the entire international community. The question now is whether or not we can look at the Iraq war for what it really is, and then muster the intestinal fortitude to see it through to a successful conclusion.

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