The war in Iraq isn't over. The main events may not even have happened yet.
The war in Iraq isn't over. The main events may not even have happened yet.

By Thomas E. Ricks
Sunday, February 15, 2009

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.

For reasons of nationalism, if Sadr can be drawn into the political arena, he may effectively become an ally of convenience to the Americans. "It should not be forgotten that the Sadrists are Tehran's historical main enemy among the Shiites of Iraq," noted Reidar Visser, an Oxford-educated expert on Iraqi Shiites. But others contend that Sadr is just lying low until the United States draws down its troops and declares its combat role concluded.

The role of Iran remains problematic. At this point, that country appears to be the biggest winner in the Iraq war, and perhaps in the region. "Iran's influence will remain and probably grow stronger," said Jeffrey White, a former Defense Intelligence Agency specialist in Middle Eastern security affairs. "The Iranians have many contacts and agents of influence in Iraq, their border with Iraq is a strategic factor of permanent consequence and their role in the Iraqi economy is growing."

What's more, noted Toby Dodge, a British defense expert who was an occasional adviser to Petraeus, "the current Iraqi government is full of Iranian clients. You'll almost certainly end up with a rough and ready dictatorship . . . that will be in hock to Iran."

But many U.S. soldiers who have served in Iraq believe that the biggest threat to American aspirations won't be the Iranians but the Iraqis themselves. The Iraqi military is getting better, but it is still a deeply flawed institution, even with tens of thousands of U.S. soldiers keeping an eye on it.

Maj. Matt Whitney, who spent 2006 advising Iraqi generals, predicted that once U.S. forces were out of the way, Iraqi commanders would relapse to the brutal ways of earlier days: "Saddam Hussein taught them how to [suppress urban populations] and we've just reinforced that lesson for four years," he said. "They're ready to kill people -- a lot of people -- in order to get stability in Iraq."

In my last interview with him, Odierno countered this thinking. He believes that Iraqi commanders have improved and that they will no longer automatically revert to Saddam-era viciousness. "I think two years ago that was true," he said. "I think maybe even a year and a half ago it was true. I think a year ago it was a little less true. I think today it's less true." But, he added, problems clearly still remain, which is one reason the U.S. military presence will be required for some time.

But his hopeful assessment conflicts with the frequent statements of Iraqi commanders themselves. "When you got to know them and they'd be honest with you, every single one of them thought that the whole notion of democracy and representative government in Iraq was absolutely ludicrous," said Maj. Chad Quayle, who advised an Iraqi battalion in south Baghdad during the surge.

So, to address the perceptive question that Petraeus posed during the invasion: How does this end?

Probably the best answer came from Charlie Miller, who did the first draft of policy development and presidential reporting for Petraeus. "I don't think it does end," he replied. "There will be some U.S. presence, and some relationship with the Iraqis, for decades. . . . We're thinking in terms of Reconstruction after the Civil War."

The quiet consensus emerging among many who have served in Iraq is that U.S. soldiers will probably be engaged in combat there until at least 2015 -- which would put us at about the midpoint of the conflict now.

"What the world ultimately thinks about us and what we think about ourselves," U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker said to me last year, "is going to be determined much more by what happens from now on than what's happened up to now."

In other words, the events for which the Iraq war will be remembered probably haven't even happened yet.

Thomas E. Ricks is a special military correspondent for The Washington Post and a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security. This article is adapted from his book "The Gamble: General David Petraeus and the American Military Adventure in Iraq, 2006-2008."

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