Operation Iraqi Freedom has officially ended. Starting on the March 19, 2003, what began as an attempt to remove the genocidal regime of Saddam Hussein from power and eliminate illegal weapons programs became something more politically complex and catastrophically violent than any of the nations involved in the invasion had ever anticipated. In a televised speech last night, President Obama paid glowing tribute to the armed forces and signaled a new phase in the United States’ commitment to Iraq, declaring an end to combat operations and introducing “Operation New Dawn.”
But the war is not truly over. While declaring “an end to combat operations” is in accordance with pledges made during the election campaign two years ago, and with the status of forces agreement negotiated between the Bush administration and the Iraqi government, it does not change much politically or militarily. At least 50,000 soldiers, sailors, airmen and marines will remain in Iraq, conducting both “advise and assist” and counterterrorism missions with the Iraqi Security Forces. Al Qaida in Iraq is still a robust network, and there is also a patchwork of Shia militias throughout the south and east of the country with a lengthy history of violence. These organizations continue to demonstrate their capabilities with spectacular attacks throughout the country and Iraqis, both civilians and parts of the security forces, will continue to be targets. Americans will also continue to engage in combat and continue to suffer casualties accordingly.
Yet, it is appropriate to take some stock can be taken on the results of the war. Few would lament the removal of Saddam Hussein and his horribly illiberal regime from office; the costs of this accomplishment, however, have been staggering. More than 4,400 Americans have been killed, with tens of thousands more wounded and hundreds of allied soldiers killed and wounded. There were more than a 100,000 Iraqis killed in the span of combat operations and the sectarian violence that followed (which the current Iraqi government willingly participated in), millions of Iraqis fled the country or were internally displaced, nearly three-quarters of a trillion dollars were spent, with a decade worth of strategic attention dedicated to the war while other regions and issues continued to simmer unabated. At the same time, Iraq’s economy has boomed since the invasion, the Kurds of Iraq have stability, security and prosperity historically denied by other regional powers and the Iraqi people have more opportunity for real political participation than any country in the region besides Israel, Turkey or Lebanon (Hezbollah willing). While I will not attempt to weigh benefits against costs here — historians of the future have this luxury — there are two sides to the equation.
Still, the milestone of American troops leaving is largely symbolic. There is no Iraqi government in place, and the United States will remain compelled to exert pressure to find some form of political reconciliation, lest insurgents take advantage of the mixed bag of Iraqi Security Forces scattered throughout the country and regain the political initiative. Even after late 2011 when the last of the U.S. armed forces are to leave Iraq, there will be a new American force in Iraq under the aegis of Department of State, complete with aircraft, mine resistant vehicles, quick reaction forces and weapon-carrying contractors. I would hesitate to call the conflict over even then, even if the armed forces are not technically involved. Furthermore, there is the quickening drumbeat of war between Israel (and, let’s face it, the United States and many Arab governments) and Iran. Iran will certainly use sponsored insurgents in Iraq as a means to retaliate against “the West” or whichever governments or institutions it imagines were behind an attack to eliminate their nuclear program.
Thus, although Saddam Hussein’s regime is gone, former Secretary of State Colin Powell’s Pottery Barn adage was proven — in this case, if “you break it, you own it.” In many ways, the United States still “owns” much of Iraq, and will continue to “own” part of it for quite some time, whether operating under Iraqi Freedom or New Dawn.
We are in the middle of a generational commitment to Iraq. No amount of name-changing is going to fundamentally alter this fact.