Commentary Magazine


Iraq: The Forgotten War

I received a note from a prominent journalist last night, which read, “I realize we all have forgotten about the Iraq War, but…” One of his points was that he continues to take what is happening in Iraq seriously, and so should others. And he is quite right. As attention has shifted east to Afghanistan, Iraq has become, in many respects, America’s forgotten war. Part of the reason for this is understandable; America’s involvement in the Iraq war is winding down while our involvement in Afghanistan is winding up. But I suspect that part of the reason has to do with the fact that we’ve made astonishing progress in Iraq over the last two years, and having done so, much of the political class has decided to cast its gaze elsewhere.

Before we move on, however, it’s worth considering the most recent developments from Iraq, where on New Years Day we learned that December was the first month since the beginning of the Iraq war in which there were no U.S. combat deaths. (There were three non-combat fatalities.) As CNN reported:

Combat fatalities have decreased significantly since June, when the United States started withdrawing troops from Baghdad, Iraq’s capital, and other urban areas. The United States also started a troop drawdown in 2009 from about 160,000 to the current level of around 110,000. The U.S. military suffered double-digit combat-related deaths in February, April, May and June 2009. The highest was 17 in May. There were also eight non-combat deaths in May, making for the highest monthly total in 2009. Since July, U.S. forces have suffered no more than five combat-related deaths each month. There were five in July, three in August, four in September, two in October and four in November. Non-combat deaths outnumbered combat fatalities in March, September, October, November and December.

Moreover, the Iraqi civilian death toll in November (88 civilians killed and 332 wounded) fell to its lowest level since the 2003 U.S.-led war began. Daily violence has drastically dropped across the country over the past two years, CNN reported, but sporadic spectacular attacks, including high-profile suicide bombings against government buildings on August 19, October 25 and December 8, continue to claim hundreds of lives.

Iraq, which in 2006 was in a death spiral (in part because of serious mistakes we in the Bush Administration made), continues to be a nation on the mend. Its security and political progress remain fragile and halting, but continue nonetheless. And a war that some commentators called the worst foreign-policy mistake in American history might end up with a satisfactory outcome. Time will tell.

With every war comes agony, and Iraq is no exception. The number of Americans who died or have been wounded in the Iraq war is heartbreaking, and for the families and friends involved, a grief beyond words. But thankfully, blessedly, the loss of American lives has slowed dramatically and, compared to past wars, is quite low (4,375 U.S. military members have died in the Iraq war: 3,477 from hostilities and 898 in non-combat incidents; around 58,000 American military service men and women died in the Vietnam War). Nor have those who died done so in vain. One of the most destabilizing dictators in the Middle East is dead. His police state is long gone. And the people of Iraq, who lived under one of the most brutal and aggressive regimes in modern history, are liberated and in the process of charting their own path. How it turns out is now largely up to them. But at least we have given them a chance. And the political culture of the Middle East may, over time, change for the better (how events unfold in Iran could play a key role).

It should also be pointed out that those who declared with certainty that the surge would fail (including then-Senator Barack Obama and then-Senator Joseph Biden) and that the Iraq war was lost (including Majority Leader Harry Reid and Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi) were not only wrong; their repeated criticisms of the surge even after indisputable progress had occurred was irresponsible and reckless (for more, go here). Fortunately their insistence on an American withdrawal, which would have led to an American defeat, did not prevail.

Iraq long ago ceased to be a popular war. It is now a largely forgotten one. But those of us who were working in the White House at the time the surge was being debated and ultimately adopted will not soon forgot the intensity of the opposition, the political courage of the president who pressed ahead anyway, the few who stood by George W. Bush’s side when it mattered most, and the remarkable valor and skill of those (like Generals David Petraeus and Raymond Odierno and the brave men and women serving under them) who refused to let Iraq die.

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