Five years have flown by. For some, though, it’s been a very long five years.
Five years ago this weekend, I remember anticipating with equal amounts dread, anxiety, hope and faith that the men and women our nation had asked to invade a foreign nation and topple its repressive dictator.
We, and I mean that in the collaborative sense to include our nation’s leadership, made some large assumptions prior to sending two divisions of troops, about 50,000 total, into a nation of 25 million people that once boasted the world’s fourth-largest army.
The Iraqi people did not greet our troops with roses and wreaths and hugs, at least not for the first couple of weeks. The enemy did not surrender in droves, like it had a decade earlier in the forlorn Kuwaiti and Iraqi deserts. Instead, they fought tenaciously. They did not fight well, but they fought stubbornly.
We did not take into account that an enemy who had watched his proud top-flight units get eviscerated in the last head-on matchup with American forces would learn to use our sensitivities and sensibilities against us — such as using hospitals, schools, mosques, ambulances and civilians as cover. Or that they would allow the tanks and big guns to rumble by and attack our extended and less well-protected supply trains. Nobody asked my opinion of that, even as I stood just a few miles from the Iraqi border in the days before the invasion, but that’s exactly what I would have told them to watch out for from the enemy. As it was, they were still little match for the prowess and leadership of our troops.
Five years later, an enemy has been crushed, but our forces are still fighting foes who linger in the shadows and who still target civilians, including women and children. For our friends and neighbors in the Coastal Empire, the war has meant as many as three years away from home over the five and a half years.
The “surge” as prescribed by Gen. David Petraeus has brought about successes where few were to be found in the previous four years. Iraq was teetering on chaos after the bombing of the Golden Mosque in Samarra. Perhaps the country is no longer wobbling on the precipice of deep valley, but the foothold on the future is still not on firm ground.
My more liberal and open-minded friends asked me five years ago how long I thought the U.S. would be involved heavily in Iraq. I said at least five years. In the words of Colin Powell, “You break it, you own it.” We broke it, we own it and now we have to try to glue together some ill-fitting pieces, pieces that were only cohesive under the iron grip of a despot.
“Fixing” Iraq is more than a military solution. The troops are needed to provide some semblance of peace and order, but the Iraqi economy has to be remade and a new social fabric put together, sometimes from groups that have detested each other for centuries.
I read in one of the books detailing the invasion and our soldiers’ exploits how Shi’a in Iraq asked the U.S. troops, “When can we start killing the Sunnis?” even before Baghdad fell to the 3rd Infantry Division and the I Marine Expeditionary Force. That should give an indication of what we’re up against in trying to bring together the disparate parties together.
A viable economy, with more people at work and earning money, likely less people signing up for either Al-Qaida in Iraq or the Moqtada Sadr’s private army. It’s also other issues, such as ones that get Americans riled up, trash pickup, power supply, sanitation, etc., that have to be diligently supported.
By this time next year, our nation will have a new president. There may very well be a new tack in the course of action for Iraq, and maybe Afghanistan as well. The questions for the next president will be, are we going to be better off in four years and is Iraq going to be better off in four years? Because if Iraq isn’t, we probably won’t be either.