Nineteen months after Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid declared the war in Iraq "lost" and just nine months after Speaker Nancy Pelosi asserted the war has been a "failure" because it had not brought political change leading to reconciliation, it can now be said conclusively that both were wrong.
One of the great military reversals in history is close to achieving victory. That is contributing to stability in Iraq, along with reconciliation between warring factions.
These conclusions are contained in a report compiled by retired General Barry R. McCaffrey after a recent visit to Iraq during which he consulted with Iraqi and American military leaders and diplomats.
McCaffrey, now an adjunct professor of International Affairs at the United States Military Academy at West Point, wrote a memorandum for his academic colleagues. It concludes, "The United States is now clearly in the end game in Iraq to successfully achieve what should be our principle objectives: the withdrawal of the majority of U.S. ground combat forces ... in the coming 36 months; leaving behind an operative civil state and effective Iraqi security forces; an Iraqi state which is not in open civil war among the Shia, the Sunnis, and the Kurds; and an Iraqi nation which is not at war with its six neighboring states."
While adding that the security situation is "still subject to sudden outrage at any moment by al-Qaida in Iraq" or to "degradation because of provocative behavior by the Maliki government," McCaffrey concludes that "the bottom line is a dramatic and growing momentum for economic and security stability, which is unlikely to be reversible."
McCaffrey notes the sharp drop in attacks and casualties in the last two years and praises the "genius of the leadership team of Ambassador Ryan Crocker, General David Petraeus and Secretary of Defense Bob Gates." He credits these three with "turn(ing) around the situation from a bloody disaster under the leadership of Secretary Rumsfeld to a growing situation of security."
While McCaffrey is cautious about the Maliki government, he adds that Maliki "clearly has matured and gained stature as a political leader since he assumed his very dangerous and complex leadership responsibilities." Provisional elections are scheduled for January 2009, district elections for mid-year and national elections sometime next December. McCaffrey says fighting is now more about politics than shooting and bombing and that Americans should "have a sense of empathy for these Iraqi politicians (who) have survived a poisonous Saddam regime and a culture of intrigue and murder from every side."
While optimistic, McCaffrey's memo is filled with caveats that have much to do with America's willingness under a new president to finish the job. The Iraqi military, he says is still "anemic," lacking adequate weapons and equipment. "Their military officer corps is immensely better than a year ago -- but the bench is thin."
Though the economy struggles -- (unemployment is 20 percent and under-employment is probably 60 percent, he says), the financial system is "immature," investment capital is lacking, enterprises are run with "badly maintained, outmoded equipment" and the country suffers from "brain drain" -- things are markedly better than at any time since the war started. "The markets are open. The roads are again viable. Oil and electricity (are) no longer routinely sabotaged by the insurgents and criminals. Cell phone communications, satellite TV, and radio are all operating."
McCaffrey is critical of those responsible for managing the war during its early years: "It did not have to turn out this way with $750 billion of our treasure spent and 36,000 US killed and injured." Still, he says, it is critical that force reductions are conducted in a "deliberate and responsible manner," leaving "a stable and functioning state."
Many still argue -- as president-elect Barack Obama does -- that we should never have invaded Iraq. But if a stable Iraq results and serves as a bulwark against terrorism and terrorist states, it may turn out to have been worth it. While much could still go wrong, McCaffrey's conclusion that gains are now "irreversible" is the most optimistic assessment since President Bush's "Mission Accomplished" speech aboard the USS Abraham Lincoln five years ago.
That sentiment was premature, but if this one is correct, don't look for the current president to get short-term credit. That will go to Barack Obama for pulling the troops out. Long after any Republican can derive political credit, historians will be forced to acknowledge that freedom won and state terrorism lost in Iraq.