It’s a palpable, deflating experience when you walk off the battlefield with this single thought: we will be back here again. It’s the point where war loses its purpose—to bring about a better peace—and where your fight became the interregnum in a longer cycle of destructive waste-ization of a culture, people, or nation.
Each time I left Iraq, I left a piece of me there. The war became so protracted and its causes so intractable, I closed my eyes and could visualize my teenage son walking Anbar, Salhuddin, or Diyala with a weapon.
Of the pieces I left behind, I foolishly aspired that each piece would germinate into something, somewhere, someone better than what I found. However, this is an idealistic, nearly childish view of war, the conditions that cause it, and the things that ultimately make a people no longer opt for war and what it brings.
I am reminded of all of this as the Government of Iraq (GoI) claims that with the regime’s reclamation of Tal-Afar (Lt. Gen McMaster knows each meter of this border town), the Islamic State (IS) [Da’eash] is defeated. Who gets to define victory in this fight? Hint: it is not the GoI alone or any of its political leaders. An enduring victory occurs with at least the following:
- The IS acknowledges their defeat, and dissolves
- The GoI proffers a comprehensive plan to reconcile and rebuild
- GoI effectively controls its post-war society and internal affairs
I suffer no delusions. The IS will not, nor cannot admit defeat. It’s concept of victory is to remain present in Iraq’s cities, hamlets, and Jazeera; in this, it wins by existing the day after tomorrow.
The GoI has a plan to spend money—a mind-boggling sum to rebuild Iraq’s rubble-ized communities and provinces—alas, there is no comprehensive plan, roadmap, and most telling, no framework of reliable international assistance to satisfy the scale of need to rebuild Iraq, a nation in war’s shadows since the mid-1980s.
The GoI is not a sellout to Iran, Sa’ud, or America. But, internal factions, infighting, sectarianism, secularism, and the burden of history all conspire to not just impede redevelopment, but hamper and divert it in hurtful ways. Then, there is everything going on outside of Iraq’s sovereign borders that can and will reach into Iraq and produce consequences. For example, the Saudi regime’s brutal ethnic cleansing of Sh’ia in Saudi Arabia’s eastern province or Iran’s naked ambition that Tehran’s Mullahs realize by securing uncontested access to Syria and Lebanon through former Sunni lands in central and western Iraq.
Internally, the Iraq economy is a quagmire coupled with GoI’s lack of means to (re-)build its economy on a helpful timeline, if ever. Coalition efforts since late 2014 centered on rebuilding Iraqi military capacity not comprehensively rebuilding towns as they were liberated by GoI forces. There is no Works Project Administration (WPA, ala 1930s America) in Iraq, though one is sorely needed and could do great good. Further complicating matters is that with a victory flag planted on Tal-Afar and elsewhere, the Iraqi military may return to its relaxed-condition states of corruption and incompetence—its behavior and posture after the termination of America’s combat mission in December 2011.
There are indications that U.S. Defense Secretary Mattis now sees the return and continued presence of U.S. forces in Iraq as a must-do—a multi-year year commitment to complete the building of the Iraqi military, training its professionals, building their capacity, as well as adding heft and persistence to its hard-gained battlefield credibility.
That written, as Americans let’s do ourselves a favor and not continue to lean on an error-filled ideological narrative perpetrated and perpetuated by the right in America that, because the U.S left Iraq in 2011, America is responsible for the rise of the IS. If you persist in believing that tale, then the source of Iraqi decision-making, behavior, power, and accountability is never located in Baghdad—where it should be; rather, it’s incorrectly sited in Washington, DC.
Furthermore, when you live in Iraq, far away from the crazy talk of American media echo chambers who never have to be factually accurate or accountable for what they assert, you come to understand that a majority voting block of Iraq’s Council of Representatives (parliament) in Baghdad did not want the U.S. to maintain a credible stabilization and training force in Iraq after 2011. Today, many elected Iraqi parliament Sh’ia representatives still resent the presence of U.S. combat forces and reject the proposal of a potential longer term U.S. military presence. Where does all of this leave matters?
Iraqis do what they do better than soccer, they bicker; and in so doing become distracted, divided, disabled, and ultimately paralyzed. To further complicate matters and as if to increase the fuel load on Iraq’s human terrain, many Sunnis’ communities are destroyed or dislocated; there is no home, only memories of it. Then there are the national and international forces that stoke and exploit Iraq’s political dysfunction and security disorder. Against that backdrop, some Iraqis get to savor a battlefield win—the one they wanted and the IS obliged. However, too many Iraqis of varying ethnicity, color, locale, and sect are left in survival mode doing what they must to find food, carry water, clear unexploded ordnance, and sort massive piles of rubble, rocks, and stones—muddling through; with little substantive, stable assistance from Baghdad. Beyond 25 km from Baghdad’s city center, there is precious little salaried work or what could be construed as stable employment to effectively rebuild identity, dignity, lives, families, tribes, and communities.
To sum all of this and point to what will matter: a generation of young, disempowered, marginalized Sunni men are watching what happens next. They are either the seed corn of tomorrow’s revolt against GoI order, or they are participants in the peace-filled way ahead. How this goes from here is far from clear. Iraq The Project…the next five years are crucial; when they pass, Baghdad’s leaders will not get those years back nor get a do-over of the consequences.
I end where I began. We walk off the battlefield and know we will return. Each time we return the battlefield is different, yet the same versus morphing enemies and two unrelenting opponents. Last time the enemy was Al Qua’ida; just now, the IS. The unrelenting opponents, both equally as ruthless: resources and time.
Warriors know victory, and victory flags. One means everything; the other is a bankrupt symbol.