Iraq, lost in the fog of war

As Obama declares the war in Iraq officially over, many wonder about which – if any – goals were achieved.

Is Obama trying to justify the Iraq war even though its purposes were not achieved? [GALLO/GETTY]

War, we are told, is a rational instrument of policy. States go to war to achieve specific objectives.

On such a view, determining the outcome of a war is a kind of bookkeeping exercise. One need only measure the results against the original purposes.

But war is far too wily a beast to be made sense of by such simple calculations. War draws combatants, their societies and politics, into its vortex and forever changes them. It does so not just once, but over and over again, until people forget who they were before the guns started firing.

War has a tendency to generate uncertainties and ambiguities of the most fundamental kind, about who is winning, about what has happened, and about just who we are.

At a moment of supreme – if relative – world power, the US invaded Iraq in March 2003 to prevent Saddam Hussein from rising from the ashes of the sanctions regime of the 1990s. The US sought also to supplant a hostile Iraq with a friendly American client. Iraq would be a base from which to exercise US influence and a replacement for the pliant Gulf monarchies, whose stability in the face of al-Qaeda was then far from assured.

For political consumption, and for gullible idealists, these goals were packaged as the threat of WMD and the spread of democracy.

A mere three years later, the most powerful armed forces in human history were facing defeat at the hands of a many-sided ragtag insurgency. Each pinprick attack in Iraq bled popular support from the war in the US, and made the dream of a stable, democratic Iraq seem fantastical. Meanwhile, around the world, US legitimacy lay in tatters: stained with the WMD that never were, the chains of Abu Ghraib and the blood of Fallujah.

Most of all, the US’ reputation as the unquestioned superpower was destroyed. The war in Iraq brought an end to the American century.

The goals shifted. Now the problem was to find some way for the US to exit Iraq “with honour”. This was the same problem that the US faced in Vietnam after the Tet Offensive of 1968.

In the fog of war, one can find oneself in bed with the strangest fellows. In Iraq, the decision of Sunni sheikhs to side with the Americans against al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia and the Shiite militias turned the war around. Reinforced by the surge, and pushed out to small combat outposts among the population, US forces stepped up the tempo and quality of their operations under new, aggressive leadership. Great gaps were blown in the ranks of the insurgents and their paid helpers. Efforts to train up Iraqi security forces were redoubled, for they were ultimately the shield behind which the US could escape.

At home, in a wonderful “information operation” led by General Petraeus, all of this was repackaged as counter-insurgency, or COIN. Like the fantasies of the neoconservatives, which involved the spread of democracy through invading other people’s countries, COIN promised a sort of welfare state delivered to Iraqis on the blade of a bayonet.

COIN’s emphasis on working with the local population and delivering assistance to them generated intelligence and drained some support from the insurgency. But most of all, it offered US soldiers and the US public a renewed reason to fight and a belief in the possibility of victory.

And so it was that a regenerated and reformed US military, fighting alongside those who were Saddam Hussein’s strongest supporters, managed to bleed the insurgency white. Maliki’s regime had time to find its feet, while Iraqi security forces managed to achieve a minimal competence. Withdrawal “with honour” beckoned for the US.

In his speech at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, marking the US exit from Iraq, President Obama mostly emphasised the sacrifices of the US military – the 4,500 killed, the 30,000 wounded. He might also have mentioned the peculiar mental strain of combat tour after combat tour, while many fellow citizens at home went shopping, watched YouTube, or made a killing on the real estate market, oblivious to a war launched by leaders they had elected.

Obama unnecessarily reminded his audience of soldiers that “these numbers don’t tell the full story of the Iraq war – not even close”. The question he was begging was not only the much higher cost of the war for Iraqis (by several orders of magnitude) but the purpose for which all this sacrifice was made.

As a concept, sacrifice only makes sense when you sacrifice for some higher value. Otherwise, to die in a war with no clear purpose, is to be “wasted”, as the lingo of US soldiers in Vietnam had it.

Trying to push back the fog settling over the American adventure in Iraq, Obama told the troops that they left Iraq “with their heads held high”. Saying such a thing is proof positive of uncertainty over whether and just how it may be true. That soldiers served honourably in difficult circumstances does not answer the questions of why they were asked to do so or what they have achieved.

Like Bush and his WMD, Obama offered some hostages to the fortunes of war. He said the US was “leaving behind a sovereign, stable and self-reliant Iraq, with a representative government that was elected by its people.”

As Maliki throws his opponents in prison on dubious pretexts, Sunni sheikhs and Kurdish leaders consider their options, and half-trained Iraqi security forces nervously man checkpoints, Obama’s hostages are not likely to last long as a convincing account of just what was achieved by the US invasion of Iraq.

Tarak Barkawi is Senior Lecturer in the Centre of International Studies, University of Cambridge.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.

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