Since this article was written, an estimated 5000 additional Iraqis have died in what has become a multi-faction civil war that now threatens to tear Iraq apart.
Iraq might be off the front pages, but our legacy is still unsettled
By Joe Bruns — The United Nations mission in Iraq reports that 979 Iraqis were killed and another 2133 wounded in acts of terrorism and violence just in the month of September, bringing the death total to 5740 so far this year.
In Baghdad, on September 30 alone, there were 15 car bombs detonated as the violence continued to wreck devastation on what is left of the country. Car bombings have become a way of life, averaging more than two per day, with multiple coordinated car bombings frequent.
Nor is the violence confined to Baghdad. Just this week, suicide bombers, probably Sunni, killed 19 people of the small Shabak sect in attacks near the city of Mosul. And on September 29, ten people were killed and 62 injured in bombings in the generally peaceful Kurdish autonomous region.
Violence in Iraq is pervasive and comes from multiple quarters. The traditional animosity between Sunni and Shia has existed for centuries. Regional differences have diced the country into ethnic enclaves often under the control of local militias. The Kurdish autonomous area is becoming virtual Kurdistan. Even within sectarian groups, sub-factions battle for control. In Sadr City, Moktada al-Sadr finds himself in a power struggle with Asaib al-Haq, who has ties to Iran and has sent support to Syria to aid President Bashar al-Assad. Added to this are the professional insurgents, Baathists (dead-enders as they were once known), Iranian backed Hezbollah, resurgent al-Qaeda related groups, and clans seeking to settle old grievances. While the violence has not yet reached the stage of the bloody years of 2006-2007 when there was a virtual civil war it is increasing.
Iraq Ethnic and Religious Distribution — WorldPress
Meanwhile, the Nouri al-Maliki government celebrates oil production goals and buys Russian war materials. But al-Maliki’s regime is rife with corruption, is unable to regularly provide basic services and, importantly, lacks an independent judiciary. In an act the United Nations human rights chief Navi Pillay called “obscene and inhuman,” the al-Maliki regime this month carried out mass executions of 42 prisoners. Ms. Pillay went on to characterize Iraq’s justice system as too corrupt to warrant use of the death penalty at all, let alone on such a large scale.
An American Legacy
Ten years ago, the United States invaded Iraq for the purpose of overthrowing Saddam Hussein, securing his [non-existent] weapons of mass destruction, and establishing a democratic beachhead in the middle east.
It is not a neocon pipedream … that Israel, Palestine, Turkey, Afghanistan and Iraq can create [democratic] momentum that Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Lebanon, and … even Syria or Iran would find hard to resist,” said Victor Hanson (Hoover Institution) in 2005.
This grand crusade began with a spectacular display of American military might: shock and awe.
March 19- 20, 2003 Shock and Awe in Baghdad (Photo BBC)
General Tommy Franks commanded the invasion, and executed it with precision, demonstrating the particular strength of the American led coalition forces in striking hard and fast. The southern oil fields were quickly secured, and resistance to the invading forces, while at times fierce, was quickly overcome. By April, Baghdad fell.
By May 1, the invasion of Iraq had gone so well that President Bush declared on the deck of the USS Abraham Lincoln, “Major combat operations have ended. In the battle of Iraq, the United States and our allies have prevailed.”
USS Abraham Lincoln (5/1/2013)
But we quickly learned that defeating an opposing army and bringing peace, stability and democracy to a complex country were two quite different things. The problems started almost immediately.
The very nature of the invasion strategy left the coalition ill prepared to stabilize the country in the aftermath of military victory. We deliberately went in ‘light.’ Army Chief of Staff Gen. Eric K Shinseki in Congressional testimony estimated that an occupying force of several hundred thousand troops would be necessary to secure Iraq post-invasion. Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz ridiculed Gen. Shinseki’s estimate, sticking by an earlier estimate of about 100,000 troops. We will never know if even Gen. Shinseki’s number would have stabilized Iraq. What we do know is that the troop level was insufficient to create civil order. Perhaps more important than sheer numbers, troops specialized in civil administration were insufficiently mobilized, and Arabic language speakers were in short supply. This, when combined with purge of Baathist bureaucrats and skilled workers and the administrative ineptitude of the Coalition Provisional Authority under Pro Consul Paul Bremer soon led to rioting, looting, and outright insurgency. By 2004, a full-scale civil war was breaking out.
You break it, you own it” — Colin Powell on the danger of regime change in Iraq.
Second Battle of Fallujah, November 2004 (photo BBC)
By the time the United States withdrew in 2011, as many as 461,000 Iraqis had died, although this figure is disputed. What is not disputed is that American and allied forces suffered 4804 deaths. More than 32,000 American troops were injured. According to Associated Press, an astounding 45% of the 1.6 million veterans of Iraq an Afghanistan have filed disability claims with the Veteran’s Administration.
Wars also leave impressions on the national psyche. In any war there are examples of jaw-dropping heroism as well as disgusting examples of atrocity. Unfortunately, it is the atrocities that we easily remember. Lynndie England and Abu Ghraib come easily to mind, but many other worse atrocities have been documented. Far less well known are the individual acts of heroism, including the four Americans – a Marine, two Soldiers and a Navy Seal – who were awarded the Medal of Honor, all posthumously. Wars also lead to new tactics and technology. World War I gave us air combat and poison gas, WWII gave us Kamikaze flights, the blitzkrieg and the atomic bomb, Viet Nam offered large-scale irregular warfare, napalm bombings and Agent Orange. Iraq introduced improvised explosive devices, the surge and the widespread use of drones, which have now found new use for killing terrorists wherever they hide, along with too many innocent civilians. Like poison gas, the atomic bomb and napalm before it, the use of drones has become an issue of moral debate.
Wars have unforeseen consequences. World War I led inevitably to World War II, as well as the unfortunate configuration of the Middle East. WWII led to the division of Europe and the Cold War. Defeating Iraq’s army and overthrowing Saddam Hussein was the easy part. It was a mission for which our military was designed. Nation building is the hard part, and is one that our army is ill-suited for, even when supplemented by vast support of contractors and multiple civilian agencies. The overthrow of Saddam and subsequent instability in Iraq has clearly changed the balance of power in the Middle East, and particularly with regard to Iran. It may also have contributed to the “Arab Spring,” with outcomes still unsettled—just like our own legacy in the region.
We have spent trillions of dollars equipping and manning the most powerful armed force the world has ever known. Our machines can defeat their machines, our men and women can outfight any foe. What we continue to demonstrate, though, is our inability to win hearts and minds — to win the peace.