The war in Iraq isn't over. The main events may not even have happened yet.
In October 2008, as I was finishing my latest book on the Iraq war, I visited the Roman Forum during a stop in Italy. I sat on a stone wall on the south side of the Capitoline Hill and studied the two triumphal arches at either end of the Forum, both commemorating Roman wars in the Middle East.
To the south, the Arch of Titus, completed in 81 A.D., honors victories in Egypt and Jerusalem. To the north, the Arch of Septimius Severus, built 122 years later, celebrates triumphant campaigns in Mesopotamia. The structures brought home a sad realization: It's simply unrealistic to believe that the U.S. military will be able to pull out of the Middle East.
It was a week when U.S. forces had engaged in combat in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan -- a string of countries stretching from the Mediterranean Sea to the Indian Ocean -- following in the footsteps of Alexander the Great, the Romans and the British. For thousands of years, it has been the fate of the West's great powers to become involved in the region's politics. Since the Suez Crisis of 1956, when British and French influence suffered a major reduction, it has been the United States' turn to take the lead there. And sitting on that wall, it struck me that the more we talk about getting out of the Middle East, the more deeply we seem to become engaged in it.
President Obama campaigned on withdrawing from Iraq, but even he has talked about a post-occupation force. The widespread expectation inside the U.S. military is that we will have tens of thousands of troops there for years to come. Indeed, in his last interview with me last November, Gen. Raymond T. Odierno, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, told me that he would like to see about 30,000 troops still there in 2014 or 2015.
Yet many Americans seem to think that the war, or at least our part in it, is close to being wrapped up. When I hear that, I worry. I think of a phrase that Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz often used in the winter of 2003, before the invasion: "Hard to imagine." It was hard to imagine, he would tell members of Congress, the media and other skeptics, that the war would last as long as they feared, or that it could cost as much as all that, or that it might require so many troops. I worry now that we are once again failing to imagine what we have gotten ourselves into and how much more we will have to pay in blood, treasure, prestige and credibility.
I don't think the Iraq war is over, and I worry that there is more to come than any of us suspect.
A smaller but long-term U.S. military presence in Iraq is probably the best we can hope for. The thought of having small numbers of U.S. troops dying for years to come in the country's deserts and palm groves isn't appealing, but it appears to be better than either being ejected or pulling out -- and letting the genocidal chips fall where they may.
Almost every American official I interviewed in Iraq over the past three years agreed. "This is not a campaign that can be won in one or two years," said Col. Peter Mansoor, who was Gen. David H. Petraeus's executive officer during much of the latter's tour in Iraq. "The United States has got to be willing to underwrite this effort for many, many years to come. I can't put it in any brighter colors than that."
Many worried that as the United States withdraws and its influence wanes, the Iraqi tendency toward violent solutions will increase. In September 2008, John McCreary, a veteran analyst for the Defense Intelligence Agency, predicted that the arrangement imposed by the U.S. government on Iraqi factions should worry us for several reasons. First, it produces what looks like peace -- but isn't. Second, one of the factions in such situations will invariably seek to break out of the arrangement. "Power sharing is always a prelude to violence," usually after the force imposing it withdraws, he maintained.
Many of those closest to the situation in Iraq expect a full-blown civil war to break out there in the coming years. "I don't think the Iraqi civil war has been fought yet," one colonel told me. Others were concerned that Iraq was drifting toward a military takeover. Counterinsurgency expert David Kilcullen worried that the classic conditions for a military coup were developing -- a venal political elite divorced from the population lives inside the Green Zone, while the Iraqi military outside the zone's walls grows both more capable and closer to the people, working with them and trying to address their concerns.
In addition, the American embrace of former insurgents has created many new local power centers in Iraq, but many of the faces of those who run them remain obscure. "We've made a lot of deals with shady guys," Col. Michael Galloucis, the Military Police commander in Baghdad, said in 2007, at the end of his tour. "It's working. But the key is, is it sustainable?"
One of the least understood of those "shady guys" is also one of the most prominent -- Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr. The U.S. government has consistently underestimated him, first in going into Iraq and then in 2004, when he violently confronted the American superpower. He not only survived those encounters but also emerged more powerful and was brought into the U.S.-created Iraqi government. If he can stay alive, more power is likely to flow to him.