The situation in Iraq, rather than being black-and-white and easily explainable, is a million different shades of gray. The individual bits of reality you see there are so fluid that any conclusion they drive you to is bound to be outdated as soon as it’s reached. The complexity of the situation on the ground in Iraq is very difficult to grasp without witnessing it first-hand. Being back for even a few weeks is enough to lose touch with its intricacy, as I found out during the two months I was home this summer between my April-May and August-October front-line embeds.
As I left Iraq last week, I brought home a vision of a very broken country. One which was not without the hope of a better future, but which would need years of time and billions in resources, as well as a great deal of luck and cooperation, in reach.
On this trip, I saw (and experienced) a great number of positive developments, from Coalition-provided public clinics, to major offensives against terrorist groups, to the cultivation of human intelligence essential to driving operations and thwarting terrorist plots. I saw unlikely Iraqi alliances formed to fight the insurgency, and witnessed the rebuilding of infrastructure by Iraqis (though all too often it was immediately blown up by insurgents). I attended training courses for Iraqi Security Forces, and went on patrols and missions led by Iraqi and National Police, who, though not professional by any American sense of the word, are improving.
Sectarian violence has decreased, but is still very real. It is egged along by al Qaeda and by the various groups that once made up Muqtada al Sadr’s now-splintered Jaish al Mahdi militia, among others. Large areas of Baghdad, which were formerly home to mixed Sunni and Shi’a populations, have seen both violent and voluntary moves toward ethnic homogeneity. In the city, as well as south along the fertile Tigris River Valley to the former Sunni resort city of Salman Pak, members of the Shi’a majority, exercising their newfound freedom and power, have ejected formerly elite Sunni families from their homes, pushing them out into the barren desert.
Members of the overwhelmingly Shi’a National Police (many of them members of the Jaish al Mahdi) have, in many areas, taken it upon themselves to cleanse cities of Sunni individuals and families, acting more as roving death squads than as law enforcement officers, and committing what the military calls "extrajudicial killings" (our term would be "murder") in Sunni neighborhoods in the dead of night. This has been a problem for some time now, though the Iraqi government has recently begun taking greater steps to deal with the problem, including creating the equivalent of an Internal Affairs division within the Ministry of Interior to deal with corrupt and criminal police.
Further, despite reports that the U.S. is prepared to "declare victory against al Qaeda in Iraq," the job is still far from complete — and whether it will (or even can) be completed successfully is far from certain. There remains a large and persistent terrorist population in Iraq, both foreign and homegrown. Just north of Baghdad, in Samarra (and the surrounding desert), where I spent the month of September, the ranks of AQI — the number one (and only) enemy in that city — are supplemented by fighters from Egypt, Syria, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, the Sudan, and even Bangladesh (there have also been rumors of Chechens and other central Asian insurgents in the area, as well). Though hundreds have been killed by coalition forces, more are always ready to take their place in the fight against America and against Iraq.
Many Iraqis — in Baqubah, Fallujah, Ramadi, Salman Pak, Baghdad, and other areas — have shown a great deal of courage, not only by providing information on insurgent activity to coalition forces, but also by working to rebuild what the insurgents have destroyed.
Many more have put their lives on the line to drive terrorists out of their own villages, not knowing whether they will wake up the next day to find that the coalition has abandoned them.
The fact is that the popular resistance to the insurgency is an extremely localized phenomenon (as is nearly everything in this diverse, divided, and complex region), and is shared by a much smaller percentage of the population than is needed to be able to make Iraq relatively safe and free from insurgents.
What remains in Iraq is a very long and difficult struggle, and it is very likely that the coalition’s goals will have to be changed yet again before “victory” can be declared. Successful and stable nation building is a very different and more difficult undertaking than ‘simply’ waging a counterinsurgency. Amidst the real but exceedingly fragile gains made by the ‘Surge’ are no guarantees of long-term stability and effectiveness.
Should US forces begin to depart in the near future — or even to pull back to any of the handful of obscenely large ‘Super FOBs’ (Forward Operating Bases) as they did under General Casey — then that fragile bit of security and stability which has been achieved will simply crumble, and will do so almost immediately.
While social, governmental, and security services are being developed and (slowly) improved, at this point the U.S. is still the main source of security and stability. Further, the coalition’s nation-building task in Iraq is made even more difficult by the fact that most of those whom we call "Iraqis" actually have little or no sense of being part of a unified nation, nor do they believe that they have a vested interest in any unit outside of their own tribe, clan, sect, or city.
For the short term, from my own eyewitness experience, conditions in some areas of the vast nation that is Iraq are improving — albeit at a pace that would, to our attention deficit-laden culture at home, make a snail seem quick by comparison. Given several more months (or better, years), and the combination of a continuous and active coalition security presence and the establishment and continuation of intensive, ‘quality-first’ training of Iraqi Security Forces (Iraqi Police, National Police, and Iraqi Army), then it may be possible that this country could one day exist in a state resembling that of security and stability. But even then, not independent of a large and very prominent coalition presence.
Even small troop withdrawals, if not accompanied by the standing up of Iraqi Security Forces who are ready to do so — something which they emphatically are not at this time – will create smaller, more localized vacuums in their own right, and will likely result in the quick undoing of everything that the ‘surge’ has managed to accomplish.
There are many positives in Iraq to go along with the negatives, but there is no question that the war there has not yet been “won.”
When I climbed onto the C-130 to go home again, it struck me that all I saw and heard in Iraq — all the work our troops and civilians are doing, all the risks the Iraqis themselves are taking — have achieved many goals. But none of those achievements may last longer than it takes for the last US aircraft to lift off from the Baghdad airport.