December 8, 2008

Iraq is still Iraq, but end of al-Qaeda in Iraq puts end truly in sight

I'm still working on my first long dispatch from Iraq, but here's another short piece in the New York Daily News to hold you over until then. It's hard to write while roughing it in the Middle East, but I'm trying.

I spent the last two weeks of last month as an embedded reporter with the United States Army in Baghdad and was disappointed to see that, despite the overwhelming success of the surge, Iraq is as rundown and dysfunctional as ever. Yes, the country is less violent now than at any time since the U.S. invaded in 2003, but Iraq is still Iraq.

Many Americans and Iraqis I spoke to feel a sense of dread and foreboding about what will happen when American forces soon begin to withdraw. Without the presence of American soldiers as peacekeepers, Gen. David Petraeus' brilliant counterinsurgency strategy will be moot. Many believe the remaining terrorists and insurgents will respond with a countersurge of their own, or that Iraqis might slug it out with one another in the power vacuum.

Despite that gloomy prognosis, however, the most critical American foreign policy objective has been achieved: al-Qaeda in Iraq has been defeated.

The war in Iraq is best thought of as more than one war. The first, in 2003, was a war against dictator Saddam Hussein's Baath Party regime. Few, at this point, dispute that it was a war of choice. Saddam, as it turned out, posed little or no threat to the United States. Removing him from power was a strategic decision, and that war ended when his regime was demolished.

Staying on to stand up and defend a new government likewise was optional - until Abu Musab al-Zarqawi launched al-Qaeda in Iraq. His army of especially vicious killers joined the rising insurgency, ignited a civil war and seized power in portions of Anbar and Diyala provinces and in parts of the capital.

American involvement in Iraq all but ceased to be optional after that happened. No franchise of al-Qaeda could be allowed to control territory anywhere in the world after what their ideological comrades did on Sept. 11, 2001. Al-Qaeda in Iraq was not the only terrorist group in the country, but it was by the far the most sadistic and violent. It was also, perhaps, the only one that threatened innocents outside Iraq. An al-Qaeda-friendly state in the distant wilds of Afghanistan was dangerous enough for the United States and for much of the world. Al -Qaeda-controlled territory in the heart of the Middle East could not be tolerated, especially since Americans were already there on the ground and could do something about it.

If American troops had begun to withdraw early last year instead of ramping up with the surge, they would have left entrenched al-Qaeda statelets in place and likely would have had to return to Iraq to fight yet again.

Read the rest in the New York Daily News.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at December 8, 2008 5:57 AM

The Thunder Run has linked to this post in the blog post From the Front: 12/08/2008 News and Personal dispatches from the front and the home front.

Posted by: David M Author Profile Page at December 8, 2008 11:50 AM

Listening to a recent press conference by LTG Lloyd Austin (, I was encouraged to hear about how many provinces are largely under Iraqi security control. The recent completion of their missions by coalition partners such as Macedonia, Bosnia and Azerbijan also seems to underscore the progress made to date.

So there is reason for optimism---cautious, that is, realistic, optimism. I think Michael's sober assessment of the challenges ahead deserves as much attention as does recognition of the tremendously successful collective effort so far.

Posted by: Paul S. Author Profile Page at December 8, 2008 1:49 PM
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Winner, The 2008 Weblog Awards, Best Middle East or Africa Blog

Winner, The 2007 Weblog Awards, Best Middle East or Africa Blog

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