A Perilous Peace
Associated Press Baghdad Bureau Chief Robert Reid and his chief military reporter Robert Burns published a dispatch from Iraq over the weekend that should have made banner headlines. “It’s not the end of fighting,” they wrote. “It looks like the beginning of a perilous peace.” This is exactly right, but millions of Americans still have no idea. Coverage from Iraq has diminished as much as the casualty rates since General David Petraeus implemented an effective counterinsurgency strategy in early 2007. At least we’re finally seeing a media consensus emerge after a year and a half of looking at the data as though it were inkblots on a Rorschach. It’s nearly impossible to work in Iraq anymore and deny what has happened.
Even so, this is no time to get recklessly drunk on victory and declare “mission accomplished.” Nor is this the time to bolt for the exits from an unpopular war. The peace, as Burns and Reid say, is perilous and only just now beginning. The war is still not actually even over, though the fighting has been greatly reduced. Every single last inch of progress can be reversed. Keeping the relative peace will be just as difficult, though less dangerous, than making it in the first place. “[J]udging from the security gains that have been sustained over the first half of this year,” they wrote, “as the Pentagon withdrew five Army brigades sent as reinforcements in 2007 — the remaining troops could be used as peacekeepers more than combatants.”
That’s basically already happening. The transformation of American soldiers and Marines from counterinsurgent combatants to peacekeepers has taken place all over Iraq. In fact, the most radical of General Petraeus’s strategic overhaul was the positioning of troops as peacekeepers and the defenders of Iraqi civilians before the fighting even abated. That is what brought so many Iraqis over to the American side. Some places in Iraq were so horrifically violent that nothing resembling a normal life was even possible until someone stepped in to provide basic security. Al Qaeda in Iraq and Moqtada al Sadr’s Mahdi Army militia weren’t going to do it. They were the groups that threatened Iraqi security. And the Iraqi Army and Iraqi Police were too under trained, under equipped, understaffed, and corrupt to do it themselves.
Effective peacekeeping troops are crucial in some parts of the world. I recently returned from a trip to Kosovo where I embedded with American soldiers whose primary mission now is preventing the local Serbs and Albanians from burning down each others’ houses. The Kosovo War ended in 1999, but mass violence erupted there twice since that time. The first major incident was right after the war when Albanians who were ethnically-cleansed by Slobodan Milosevic’s Yugoslav army and paramilitary forces returned to their homes under escort by NATO. Enraged mobs burned Serbian Orthodox churches and Serb civilian homes to the ground. More of the same broke out for three days in 2004 when rumors spread that Albanian children drowned in the Ibar River after being chased off by Serbs. These incidents did not catalyze a new war, but they certainly could have in the absence of neutral international soldiers who carry weapons and are ordered to pull the trigger if necessary. American soldiers mean business, and everyone there knows they will shoot to kill if they have to. These men are not the impotent United Nations “blue hats” who stood around in Bosnia and Rwanda while genocide was carried out right in front of them.
Everyone I spoke to in the Balkans – Serbs, Albanians, and American soldiers alike – believe the 1999 war would resume post haste if NATO withdraws its armed forces. And that war ended nine years ago. Everyone could be wrong. It happens. Maybe cooler heads would prevail. But it would take a serious leap of faith to declare “mission accomplished” in the Balkans even after almost a decade.
Progress in Iraq is real, but, believe me, the country is in vastly worse shape than Kosovo. It is much more violent and dysfunctional. Well-armed and highly motivated extremists are much thicker there on the ground. If withdrawing from Kosovo is a bad idea – and I do believe that would be – yanking peacekeeping troops out of Iraq all of a sudden would all but guarantee a catastrophic result.
Peacekeeping missions are boring and hard to cover in newspapers, in magazines, and on television. Peacekeepers therefore rarely appear in the media except when they’ve botched it, as they chronically did in Bosnia, for example. Their job, though largely invisible, is just as important as peacemaking. It ought to be recognized as such by anyone who would rather see less war than more.