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The long goodbye

The sixth anniversary of war in Iraq marks the first month of the beginning of the end. Are Iraqis ready to keep the peace when Americans quit the war?

Issue: "Ready or not, here we go," March 28, 2009

Type "counterinsurgency failure" into a popular search engine, and you will find papers on the great British counter-insurgency failure of 1776, the Russian failure in Chechnya, and American failures in Greece, the Philippines, and-naturally-Vietnam. You will find some ad hoc opinion pieces on counterinsurgency failure in Iraq, but you will search in vain to find a research paper suggesting that the surge in Iraq, which formally began in 2007, has failed.

That's because the facts on the ground suggest the opposite.

And that, even more than momentum from last November's polls, is the reason that President Barack Obama was able to stand before thousands of Marines at Camp LeJeune on Feb. 28 and declare: "By August 31, 2010, our combat mission in Iraq will end."

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Obama told a subdued audience of combat-fatigue-clad marines that he consulted with the secretary of defense, the joint chiefs, and commanders in Iraq before deciding to conclude a drawdown of U.S. combat forces in the next 18 months, two months longer than the 16 months he pledged on the campaign trail. He said he plans to keep in place a residual force of up to 50,000 through 2011 in a plan for what he called "the responsible removal of our combat brigades from Iraq."

The president's withdrawal plan leaves virtually untouched through 2009 approximately 140,000 U.S. troops-that means through the upcoming March 20 anniversary of the U.S. invasion six years ago, and through nationwide parliamentary elections scheduled for December.

Despite the progress and new U.S. operational strategy, popular criticism lingers that the success of the surge is only skin deep.

"The surge worked militarily. It failed politically," is the conclusion of Washington Post journalist Thomas E. Ricks and others. Ricks authored the 2006 book Fiasco and 2009's The Gamble.

That kind of pronouncement feeds a low-grade dread that Iraq will devolve into violent chaos once all but the U.S. residual force remains, recalling scenes from Somalia 1993 with U.S. forces battling urban warlords. And lack of political progress needles at a more pressing worry: that getting the job done in Afghanistan will prove impossible, too.

But international law experts and a look at three critical areas affecting Iraq's political and judicial makeup suggest that isn't the full story. After all, the rule of law arguably began in ancient Babylon under Hammurabi, whose code of legal requirements was one of the first written in the world. That's why the Babylonian king, ca. 1770 B.C., is depicted as one of 23 lawgivers in bas-relief above chamber doors of the U.S. House of Representatives and on the south frieze of the U.S. Supreme Court building-so widely is he credited with the concept that no one is above the law.

Iraqis like to claim the Hammurabi tradition, discovered Vanderbilt law professor Michael A. Newton while advising Iraqi jurists and training judges to serve on the Iraq High Tribunal: "The jurists would say they want to restore the real Iraq because Hammurabi was an Iraqi." When it comes to "rule of law" matters, progress has been less examined but is no less defined, Newton and others argue, verging even on success in key areas.

One area of progress is the treatment of Iraqi detainees. Little noted in the military surge is that the number of Iraqi and foreign insurgents captured outnumbered those killed: About 25,000 suspected Iraqi militants were in U.S. custody just over a year ago. By the end of this year most will be transferred to Iraqi custody or released.

Military commanders have in the last 18 months clarified the mission of detention, in contrast to the confusion and muddled chains of command that surfaced infamously in the Abu Ghraib abuse cases of 2004. Subsequently, U.S. commanders discovered an escape tunnel dug by as many as 600 detainees at Camp Bucca, the desert prison that until this year has been one of two U.S. detention facilities in Iraq. At one point over 10,000 detainees rioted at the camp, setting fire to tents.

One problem: The U.S. military treated the camps as holding pens beyond the boundary of war when in reality they were battlefields of their own, places where hardened terrorists could establish "jihadist universities" unless counterinsurgency tactics could turn disaffected Iraqis into solid citizens again.

The practice of counterinsurgency is counterintuitive to the traditional conduct of war. Gen. David Petraeus, commander of U.S. Central Command and the author not only of the army manual on the subject but also its chief architect in Iraq, likes to ask military personnel: "So what have you done to help the people of Iraq today?" He tells soldiers and marines they should be ready to be greeted "with a handshake or a hand grenade" and to see themselves as nation builders as well as warriors.

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