3,200 Dead, 26 Million Freed, and a Long Ways Yet to Go

Four years ago, on the evening of March 20, 2003, operation 1003 Victor — which would come to be known as “Operation Iraqi Freedom” — was launched with a multi-pronged, multi-national invasion of, Saddam Hussein’s Iraq.

Air Force, Marine, and Navy aircraft combined with Tomahawk cruise missiles to provide the “shock-and-awe” light show covered so avidly by American and international media, while the 3rd Infantry and 101st Airborne Divisions made a lightning-fast run to Baghdad, seeking to reach the Iraqi capital and to oust Saddam Hussein rather than to secure the country piece-by-piece as they passed through.

A few weeks after the initial border crossing by coalition forces, Hussein and his sons had fled, Baghdad had fallen, and the famous toppling of the Saddam statue had taken place. On May 1, 2003 — just over a month after the initial invasion — President Bush boarded the USS Abraham Lincoln and made his famous (or notorious) speech announcing the end of “major combat operations” in Iraq.

Fast-forward four years. While the initial invasion of Iraq can hardly be considered anything other than a resounding success, the time since has been anything but. Sectarian violence, insurgent attacks, and an influx of al Qaeda-linked terrorists have kept stability at bay to this point.

This is not to say that there have not been significant achievements in the region, as well. The Iraqi people have gotten the chance to participate in free and fair elections. They now have a free press, and no longer live in fear of their government. Saddam Hussein and his murderous sons, Uday and Qusay, are dead; likewise Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the former leader of al Qaeda in Iraq. Water and power services have been progressively restored and expanded, medical care has been greatly improved, and convenient technological advances, such as the internet and cell phones, have been made more available to the general public.

The bad news from the past four years has dominated media reports and political speeches; however, many of these well-publicized setbacks have been the result of our own mistakes. The rules of engagement forced upon coalition and Iraqi servicemen, for example, provided an overly restrictive environment, and allowed our enemies to grow and to thrive largely unmolested. From allowing insurgents to flee into — or to hide weapons caches within — mosques, to restricting the movement of allied troops (such as prohibiting them from entering Sadr City), to refusing to forcefully interrogate captive terrorists (although when U.S. soldiers were captured, they were not only brutally tortured, but beheaded and mutilated beyond recognition), combat in Iraq became dangerously asymmetrical in the time since the fall of Baghdad in early 2003 — and began to look more and more like an unmanageable, unwinnable “quagmire” of a war, from which some thought that America needed to extricate herself as quickly as possible, regardless of the long-term consequences.

These developments have affected the U.S.’s standing in the eyes of the world, as well. While going into Iraq initially sent the message that America and her allies would not sit idly by while rogue dictators thumbed their noses at us, or while terrorists plotted to murder us, what has been happening since then has also made our enemies take note — but in an entirely different way.

Our enemies have long since noted America’s unease at the sight of its own blood being shed, and of soldiers in flag-draped coffins; so, they have provided copious amounts of both. They noted our refusal to pursue terrorists into mosques, or to return fire when civilians may be in danger (though they freely slaughter their own innocent without compunction), and used each of these to their advantage. Finally, our enemies have long since learned how to use America’s media against her — and they have done so spectacularly, propelled along by the nation’s anti-war sheep and congressional Democrats who, when forced to choose between securing the country and opposing the President, have consistently chosen the latter.

However, after nearly four years of roller-coaster developments from Iraq, the tide appears to be turning. In recent weeks, a new focus has been placed on securing Baghdad and on preparing the Iraqi military to eventually take over national defense. Two of the five extra brigades involved in the 20,000-troop “surge” have arrived in-country, and coalition forces’ ROEs have been adjusted to correct for the needlessly unproductive restrictions on troop movement and on the engagement of sectarian fighters. Gen. David Petraeus, the new commander of Multinational Forces in Iraq, has pointed out the ample cause for optimism, saying: “By early June, we should then have everyone roughly in place — and that will allow us to establish the density in partnership with Iraqi security forces that you need to really get a good grip on the security situation.”

The “security situation” has already improved to such a degree that the sectarian murder rate has plummeted in recent weeks, and hundreds of Baghdad families have been able to return home. Long-term, as National Security Advisor Stephen Hadley has said, the war has provided all Iraqis with “a chance to take responsibility for the future of their own country.” A recent Opinion Research poll revealed that the majority of Iraqis “believe that life is getting better,” that “current American-led military operations now under way in Iraq will disarm all militias,” and that “life is better now than it was under Saddam Hussein."

The overall effect on the U.S. military has been positive in many aspects, as well. New recruits abound, with no lowering of the standards for enlistment. NCO retention remains at an all-time high. New equipment is being combat-tested, and necessary adjustments and improvements are being made quickly. Medical and logistical advances — again, achieved out of necessity — have paid dividends in the present, and will continue to do so into the foreseeable future. Inter-service coordination has, out of necessity, drastically improved since the war’s beginning — a prime example being the improved coordination of air and ground forces, which has been helped along greatly by the integration of Air Force JTACs (Joint Tactical Air Controllers) with other-service ground forces. Perhaps most importantly, members of every branch of service are gaining valuable combat experience, giving the armed forces a fresh crop of combat-tested officers and NCOs.

Besides the air and conventional land assets involved, the Iraq war has seen the greatest battlefield use of Special Operations troops in decades, with operators from all services performing a wide range of duties at the highest of levels — from counterterrorism, to airfield seizures, to combat search and rescue, to training Iraqi forces. I was in-theater at the time of the Iraq war’s commencement, working as a tactical air controller with a Joint Special Operations Task Force, responsible for providing short- and long-range communications and airstrike and artillery control for coalition SpecOps teams in-country, among other tasks. Since that time, SOF teams in Iraq have continued to provide exactly what is expected of them: the absolute best effort and performance of any units in the world, period.

These positives, though, go largely unheard here at home, as the mainstream media and congressional Democrats have done their best to portray Iraq as a lost cause, our military as strained far beyond its capacity, and the best course of action as immediate withdrawal. None of these representations are accurate.
The war in Iraq is far from being won. However, it is not lost — provided that we at home have the stomach to continue this long fight to a successful end. Signs are (tentatively) encouraging at this point, and, as Petraeus has said, by summer we will know a good bit more.

Petraeus has also made a solemn pledge of honesty regarding the situation on the ground, regardless of outlook. “I have an obligation to the young men and women in uniform out here,” he said, “that if I think it’s not going to happen, to tell them that it’s not going to happen, and there needs to be a change.

“In other words,” he concluded, “if you can’t accomplish your mission, you owe that to your boss — and you owe that, more importantly, to those who are out there serving in the coalition.”

If ever a commander deserved a chance to prove his strategy works, Petraeus is it. Those in Congress who would deny him that chance should not only be voted down, they should — in 2008 — be voted out.