Commentary Magazine

Is the War Over?

Independent reporter Michael Yon has spent more time in Iraq embedded with combat soldiers than any other journalist in the world, and a few days ago he boldly declared the war over:

Barring any major and unexpected developments (like an Israeli air strike on Iran and the retaliations that would follow), a fair-minded person could say with reasonable certainty that the war has ended. A new and better nation is growing legs. What’s left is messy politics that likely will be punctuated by low-level violence and the occasional spectacular attack. Yet, the will of the Iraqi people has changed, and the Iraqi military has dramatically improved, so those spectacular attacks are diminishing along with the regular violence. Now it’s time to rebuild the country, and create a pluralistic, stable and peaceful Iraq. That will be long, hard work. But by my estimation, the Iraq War is over. We won. Which means the Iraqi people won.

I’m reluctant to say “the war has ended,” as he did, but everything else he wrote is undoubtedly true. The war in Iraq is all but over right now, and it will be officially over if the current trends in violence continue their downward slide. That is a mathematical fact.

If you doubt it, look at the data.

Security incidents, or attacks, are at their lowest level in four years. Civilian deaths are down by almost 90 percent since General Petraeus’ counterinsurgency “surge” strategy went into effect. High profile attacks, or explosions, are down by 80 percent in the same time period. American and Iraqi soldiers suffer far fewer casualties than they have for years. Ethno-sectarian deaths from Iraq’s civil war plunged all the way down to zero in May and June 2008.

Yon is braver than the rest of us for declaring the war over, but it’s important to understand that there are no final battles in counterinsurgencies and it’s impossible to pinpoint the exact dates when wars like this end. The anti-Iraqi insurgency – a war-within-a-war – really is effectively over. As long as another such war-within-a-war doesn’t break out, Yon will appear more perceptive than the rest of us in hindsight when the currently low levels of violence finally do taper off into relative insignificance.

None of this means terrorism and violence in Iraq are over. Violence is never over in the Middle East, and Islamist terrorism will be with us for years, if not decades. There may yet be another war, a different war, in Iraq. It would be foolish to dismiss that possibility or assume there is no more work to be done. NATO is still not finished building a durable peace in Kosovo, and the war in that country ended nine years ago.

The 15-year civil war in Lebanon ended in 1990, but another low-grade civil war that eerily resembles the last is brewing again. The Algerian civil war between the secular police state and the Salafist insurgency quietly wound down years ago, but al Qaeda cells are doing their worst to crank it back up again. The Second Intifada was broken in Israel, but there is still no peace between Israel, Hamas, Islamic Jihad, or the Palestinian Authority. There are no clean endings to wars in the Middle East these days, and we shouldn’t expect one in Iraq either. But there is a point when a war becomes low-grade enough that “war” is no longer the best word to describe what takes place in the absence of absolute calm.

What most of us still think of as “war” in Iraq is, at this point, a rough and unfinished peacekeeping mission. Whether it is officially over or not, it has certainly been downgraded to something else, and it’s about time more analysts and observers are willing to say so.

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