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How We Won in Iraq - By David H. Petraeus | Foreign Policy

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The news out of Iraq is, once again, exceedingly grim. The resurrection of al Qaeda in Iraq -- which was on the ropes at the end of the surge in 2008 -- has led to a substantial increase in ethno-sectarian terrorism in the Land of the Two Rivers. The civil war next door in Syria has complicated matters greatly, aiding the jihadists on both sides of the border and bringing greater Iranian involvement in Mesopotamia. And various actions by the Iraqi government have undermined the reconciliation initiatives of the surge that enabled the sense of Sunni Arab inclusion and contributed to the success of the venture.  Moreover, those Iraqi government actions have also prompted prominent Sunnis to withdraw from the government and led the Sunni population to take to the streets in protest.  As a result of all this, Iraqi politics are now mired in mistrust and dysfunction.

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This is not a road that Iraqis had to travel. Indeed, by the end of the surge in 2008, a different future was possible.  That still seemed to be the case in December 2011, when the final U.S. forces (other than a sizable security assistance element) departed; however, the different future was possible only if Iraqi political leaders capitalized on the opportunities that were present.  Sadly, it appears that a number of those opportunities were squandered, as political infighting and ethno-sectarian actions reawakened the fears of Iraq's Sunni Arab population and, until recently, also injected enormous difficulty into the relationship between the government in Baghdad and the leaders of the Kurdish Regional Government.

To understand the dynamics in Iraq -- and the possibilities that still exist, it is necessary to revisit what actually happened during the surge, a history now explored in a forthcoming book written by my executive officer at the time, Col. (Ret.) Peter Mansoor, now a professor of military history at the Ohio State University.

Leading the coalition military effort during the surge in Iraq in 2007 and 2008 was the most important endeavor -- and greatest challenge -- of my 37 years in uniform. The situation in Iraq was dire at the end of 2006, when President George W. Bush decided to implement the surge and selected me to command it. Indeed, when I returned to Baghdad in early February 2007, I found the conditions there to be even worse than I had expected. The deterioration since I had left Iraq in September 2005 after my second tour was sobering. The violence -- which had escalated dramatically in 2006 in the wake of the bombing of the Shiite al-Askari shrine in the Sunni city of Samarra -- was totally out of control. With well over 50 attacks and three car bombs per day on average in Baghdad alone, the plan to hand off security tasks to Iraqi forces clearly was not working. Meanwhile, the sectarian battles on the streets were mirrored by infighting in the Iraqi government and Council of Representatives, and those disputes produced a dysfunctional political environment. With many of the oil pipelines damaged or destroyed, electrical towers toppled, roads in disrepair, local markets shuttered, and government workers and citizens fearing for their lives, government revenue was down and the provision of basic services was wholly inadequate. Life in many areas of the capital and the country was about little more than survival.

In addition to those challenges, I knew that if there was not clear progress by September 2007, when I anticipated having to return to the United States to testify before Congress in open hearings, the limited remaining support on Capitol Hill and in the United States for the effort in Iraq would evaporate.

In short, President Bush had staked the final years of his presidency -- and his legacy -- on the surge, and it was up to those on the ground to achieve progress. In the end, that is what we did together, military and civilian, coalition and Iraqi. But as my great diplomatic partner Ryan Crocker, the U.S. ambassador to Iraq, and I used to note, Iraq was "all hard, all the time."

I think it is unfortunate to declare Iraq a victory.

We wasted a lot of money and lost a lot of lives, and it's quite unclear what benefit there was to it.

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