There's Still a War In Iraq. It Isn't Ours.

By Greg Jaffe
Sunday, August 2, 2009

The Iraq war is over -- for us.

That doesn't mean that the United States won or achieved all of its aims or that fighting among Iraqis will stop. It doesn't mean that Iraq is stable, democratic and relatively free of corruption.

The war is over for the United States because the Iraqis don't really need or want American forces around anymore. Every time U.S. troops roll out of the gate with their Iraqi counterparts in Baghdad, they discredit the Iraqi forces in the eyes of their people. They make their Iraqi partners' jobs harder. Although senior U.S. commanders understand and accept this fact privately, they will never admit it.

Last week in Baghdad, Gen. Ray Odierno, the top commander in Iraq, blanched when a reporter asked him whether the war is "functionally over."

"There are still civilians being killed in Iraq," Odierno replied. "We still have people that are attempting to attack the new Iraqi order and the move towards democracy and a more open economy. So we still have some work to do."

In the Iraqi capital Tuesday, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates mouthed the standard line that there will still be "tough days ahead" for U.S. and Iraqi troops as the "enemies of a free Iraq try to derail progress."

On the same day Gates spoke, Iraqi forces stormed the camp of an Iranian opposition group that U.S. forces had spent the past six years protecting. The Mujaheddin-e Khalq, or MEK, had made common cause with Saddam Hussein against Iran, but the new Iraqi government, which sees Tehran as a potential ally, decided it could no longer allow them a haven.

Odierno suggested that it wasn't the U.S. military's job to intervene in what was essentially an internal matter. "This is about the Iraqis," he said. His tone marked a big change from the days when U.S. commanders would press the Iraqi government to fire or replace commanders they thought were incompetent or overtly sectarian.

Earlier the same day, Gates visited Tallil air base southeast of Baghdad to chat with U.S. soldiers and Iraqi police commandos as they prepared to head out on a joint patrol. The Iraqis, clad in camouflage uniforms and do-rags, huddled around their Humvees in the 115-degree midday heat. The American soldiers gathered in a separate cluster around Gates. The Pentagon chief thanked them for their sacrifice and service. "The training and partnering missions that you are doing are the next step in our success," he said.

A few feet away, Maj. Sean Kuester admitted that the Iraqi police in the area were largely self-sufficient and his own soldiers were more than a little bored. The Iraqis had asked for some help with evidence collection and forensics, but that was about it. They conducted their own patrols and interrogations with little to no oversight from U.S. troops. "Honestly, they seem to have a very firm grasp on things," Kuester said.

By early afternoon, Gates had jetted to Baghdad, where he and Iraqi Defense Minister Abdul Qadir Muhammed Jassim met at the Iraqi military headquarters, a marble building with elevators that haven't worked since the early days of the American invasion. At the post-meeting news conference, virtually all of the Iraqi journalists' questions were directed at Jassim.

Only a couple of years ago it would have been unthinkable that the Iraqi minister would be the main attraction at a news conference with his U.S. counterpart. Everyone assumed that the Americans were really in charge and that the Iraqis were there solely to put an Iraqi face on a U.S. military endeavor.

Even more surprising, the Iraqi press had no questions about the insurgency or internal strife. Instead they asked whether the Americans were going to sell the Iraqis F-16 fighter jets. Two Iraqi journalists had questions about ongoing tensions with Kuwait. One of the Iraqis was atwitter with rumors that the Iraqi army and navy were massing on the border in preparation for a clash with the Kuwaiti military. Welcome to 1990!

Retired Gen. John Abizaid, who led U.S. forces in the Middle East from 2003 to 2007 and had serious doubts about invading Iraq, saw this day coming. Abizaid had flaws as the commander of Mideast forces. But his understanding of the Arab world ran deeper than that of just about any general in the U.S. military. In the late 1970s Abizaid learned Arabic and spent two years studying at the University of Jordan in Amman during a time of tumultuous change for the region. He was a U.N. observer in southern Lebanon in the mid-1980s, when the radical Shiite group Hezbollah emerged as a major power. In the early 1990s his battalion was dispatched to northern Iraq to safeguard the Kurds from the Iraqi army during the Persian Gulf War's messy aftermath.

Abizaid knew there were massive historical, religious and cultural forces in Iraq that the United States could never alter. The U.S. military could shape the situation on the margins, he believed, but ultimately Iraq's future belonged to the Iraqis. "If you try to control the Middle East, it will end up controlling you," he often said.

Gen. David Petraeus, Abizaid's longtime friend and rival, thought this was nonsense. A nine-page PowerPoint briefing that he prepared in 2003 after the Mosul elections captured his attitude during the war's early days. "Don't let up, must outlast them," one slide read. "Them" meant the Iraqis who had agreed to cooperate with Petraeus.

Abizaid's somewhat fatalistic attitude hindered his effectiveness in the beginning of the war, when there were no Iraqis capable of imposing order and only the United States had the capacity to stave off the chaos that was enveloping the country. Instead of using U.S. forces to seize control, he oversaw a strategy that focused on transitioning responsibility to fledgling Iraqi units that were nowhere near ready.

Today, though, Abizaid looks prescient. The moment that he long predicted has arrived.

In Afghanistan, which makes Iraq look a bit like a desert version of Switzerland, it is likely to be years before the U.S. military is pushed into the background. Afghanistan has few roads, little government capacity, almost no economy and a jaw-dropping illiteracy rate. Without the U.S. military pushing the Afghan government and security forces to act, little happens. Not surprisingly, most ambitious U.S. officers these days are doing all they can to land in units that are likely to deploy to Afghanistan instead of Iraq. One U.S. colonel in Iraq even suggested in a memo, first reported last week by the New York Times, that it is time "for the U.S. to declare victory and go home."

But U.S. forces still have a role to play in Iraq. Their presence serves as a check on Iraqi military and political leaders' baser and more sectarian instincts. In the case of the raid on the MEK camp, U.S. officials have leaned on the Iraqis to treat the camp members humanely. A small number of American soldiers are based outside the camp, though it is unclear if their presence made any difference. MEK leaders and the provincial governor said late last week that hundreds of camp residents were wounded and several were killed in the assault.

The Americans can also act as honest brokers to resolve disagreements over the distribution of oil revenues and territorial boundaries in northern Iraq. These two issues were a major focus of Gates's trip last week.

Even Petraeus's celebrated counterinsurgency doctrine, which was finished in 2006 when the general was stuck in the wilds of Fort Leavenworth, Kan., recognized that there would be a point when the U.S. military's efforts to improve the situation in Iraq would only erode the credibility of Iraqi officials and make things worse. "Sometimes doing nothing is the best reaction," one if its Zen-like maxims read.

After six years, more than 4,300 deaths and 31,430 wounded, the moment for doing nothing in Iraq has arrived.

Greg Jaffe, who covers the military for The Washington Post, is the author, with David Cloud, of "The Fourth Star."

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