Veterans of the hard fighting in Fallujah in 2004 must be experiencing a sense of déjà vu. Once again masked al-Qaeda fighters are parading through the streets and proclaiming the establishment of a new Islamic emirate. And once again military forces are massing on the outskirts preparing to wage a bloody battle to liberate the city. The only difference this time is that those troops are Iraqi, not American.

It is easy to imagine veterans of the Iraq War asking themselves what the point was of their service and sacrifice if al-Qaeda is back, as strong as ever–and arguably stronger because its reach now extends into Syria. It is an understandable question, and one that veterans of Vietnam no doubt ask themselves too. It is never pleasant to fight in a losing cause, but that does not mean that one’s service was in vain.

Vets can still derive satisfaction from the commitment and heroism they exhibited, from the tactical results they achieved, and from the knowledge that they were fighting for a good cause. It is not their fault that the hard-won gains of their service were squandered by politicos in Baghdad and Washington.

There was nothing inevitable about the resurgence of al-Qaeda in Iraq. If the U.S. had kept troops in Iraq after 2011 and if Prime Minister Maliki had pursued more inclusive policies toward the Sunnis, AQI would have remained defeated, in all likelihood. Unfortunately, now that AQI has grown back, stronger than ever, it will have to be fought once again, and the battles that the Iraqi army will face in Anbar are likely to be bloodier than those fought by the U.S. Marine Corps.

It is a shame and a tragedy that President Obama and Prime Minister Maliki did not honor the sacrifices of so many troops in the past, both American and Iraqi, by doing more to build on the success of the surge. But that is not the fault of those troops, who fought magnificently to give Iraq an opportunity–now being squandered–for a better future.

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