View From Iraq: We Must Not Fail; This Struggle Matters

Each time I go to Iraq I am torn. Having voted for the use of force, and attended far too many funerals for courageous young soldiers in my district, I go in search of vindication. Is the war is succeeding? Are we defeating the enemy? Is a stable democracy and productive economy emerging?

There are no clear answers. Life is never that simple. Never that straightforward. Never that easy. Like during each of my prior visits, the messages this time were mixed. The “fog of war” has not completely lifted.

Removing Saddam from power was the right thing to do. The latest documents being released at the request of the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee again prove that Saddam was a sadistic, sick murderer who wanted weapons of mass destruction and would have developed and used them someday, whether he had stockpiles at the time or not. One of the documents released indicates Saddam had Kuwaiti POWs as late as 2003, a fact we didn’t know at the time. He held them to use as human shields, and in all likelihood executed them before the fall of Baghdad. Clearly, we did the right thing. But did we do it the right way? And can we do better now?

Last month I visited Baghdad for the third time. This time, I was the first member of the Arizona delegation to spend the night inside Iraq since the war. I was in the country on the anniversary of the precise day the war started three years ago.

On my first trip to Iraq, in August of 2003, it was painfully obvious that we didn’t have enough troops. Maybe we had right-sized the war, but we had wrong-sized the peace. You cannot win over the hearts and minds of the people if they can’t go about their daily lives. If they don’t have regular jobs. If there’s sewage in the streets. If they can’t open their shops. If they don’t have reliable electricity or water or gasoline. Or, if their families aren’t safe.  It is clear we didn’t have an adequate plan to secure the peace.

On my second trip, I was encouraged to learn from a platoon sergeant — who put his life on the line each day — that the Iraqi Army was taking shape. They could carry out assignments, but progress was glacially slow. They didn’t fight as aggressively as they needed to, they made amateurish mistakes, and when they did they got killed.

Once again, last month in Iraq the evidence cut both ways. In Baghdad, we learned from rank-and-file soldiers — confirmed later by top-level generals — that at least one American contractor has performed miserably, walking away with millions of dollars while failing to complete even a fraction of the health clinics it agreed to build. For the Iraqi people, such failures send the signal that America doesn’t keep its word and can’t be trusted to fulfill its promises.

As angry as that story made me, once again I came away more convinced than ever that we must not fail, and that the American people must realize that this struggle matters. We cannot cut and run. We cannot hide. We cannot fail to recognize that the forces we confront in Iraq hate us and want to destroy us and all we stand for.

It hit me as an Iraqi interpreter, who works at the American Embassy in Baghdad, told me that insurgents had kidnapped and killed his brother because he was working for the Americans.  He asked for our help for his country, while explaining that he fears for his daughter’s life. He kept her home from school for days after the “golden mosque” in Samarra was bombed. He cannot tell his neighbors where he works. He has to vary his route to and from work inside the Green Zone every day.

It hit me again when I talked to Iraqi civilians working for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. They, too, acknowledged that they can only tell family and close friends where they work and must vary their routes to and from the Green Zone, but they said that risking their lives is worth it because progress is being made. Saddam is gone, and they are hopeful democracy will prevail.

The good news is we are slowly, gradually, persistently succeeding in Iraq. When Baghdad fell, Sadr City (a poor neighborhood) was awash in sewage. There was little or no running water and no trash collection. Baghdad had electricity, but most of the rest of the country did not.

The Iraqis I talked with on my latest trip told me all that has changed. Things are dramatically better. There still isn’t enough electricity, but that is because demand has skyrocketed. Iraqis are buying electrical appliances and satellite dishes, as well as cars, at a breakneck pace.

The bad news is that making progress continues to take time and patience. Iraqi leadership is emerging slowly. The Sunnis have discovered the cost of not participating in elections. The Shiites are learning to compromise and overcome their impulse for vengeance. The thoughtful Iraqi government ministers we met with recognize that sectarian violence will destroy their country. And they realize that time is slipping away for them to form a government of national unity.

For America, one thing is clear: the price of failure is too high. This is now a test. If we leave too soon, Bin Laden, Zarqawi, the Taliban, and their ilk will be emboldened. They have declared their hatred for us, and if we fail to demonstrate our resolve now, the consequences will be severe.

If we fail, the hardliners — and the reformers — in Iran will know we have no stomach to stop their quest for a nuclear weapon. Those who have stood with us against the radicals and for reform in that region of the world, will lose all credibility — as will we. Terrorism will rebound, and terrorist acts will inevitably return to American soil.

Whether we like it or not, if we hope to preserve a civilized world we cannot abandon the Iraqi people, and we cannot afford to fail.