An End and a Beginning (Updated)

2 Sep

Operation Iraqi Freedom started on March 20, 2003, in tanks on the Kuwait-Iraq border, in aircraft launching from Saudi and Qatari airfields, and on ships in the Persian Gulf. It ended last night, on August 31st, 2010, in the Oval Office, in a disjointed speech, on national television.

Taking the place of Operation Iraqi Freedom is Operation New Dawn. As more Americans die in Iraq, and as troops stay past the 2011 deadline, and into the 2012 election year, Republicans will rightly ask what is so “new?” President Obama may have handed his opponents a “Mission: Accomplished” banner, which would be unfortunate. Because despite the President’s wish to “turn the page” in Iraq, the country, and our co-mingled troubles, still exist. Note that the excellent Washington Post correspondent, Tom Ricks, in his book “The Gamble” on the Surge, speculated that the major events for which the Iraq War will be known have not yet happened. The war continues, but by a different name.

Still, such a marker is a convenient time to ask how history will judge at least the first act, now that Operation Iraqi Freedom is complete. Here is the opening sentence to the book I would write on the subject:

In an overabundance of caution, and reflecting the vengeful mood of a country still wiping its bloody nose, President Bush ordered an invasion of Iraq, and after meeting only one of the stated goals of the conflict, ended it by staunching the worst of the blood spilt in the civil war he created.

President Obama is not in that sentence because he did not materially contribute in any way to the ability to change the operation’s name last night. It was Bush’s war, for good or ill, and he ended this phase, with the Surge in 2007, a new Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA), and the troop draw down starting in 2008. In this example, President Obama is Andrew Johnson, not Richard Nixon. Lincoln ended the war, albeit infinitely more cleanly and decisively, no matter how many Union troops stayed in the South for years afterward. President Obama is due no more, and probably wishes no more, in any event.

My colleague, Alan, wrote a column today on the end of major combat in Iraq, and in it sought to address the run up to the war as the major issue to be discussed today. I respectfully, and overwhelmingly, disagree.

Why? Because America in 2010 is in far more danger of losing a long war in which it is stuck than beginning a new war with mixed evidence. I am more worried about our ability to pacify Afghanistan than our propensity to end up in open armed conflict with Iran or North Korea. Israel may bomb Iran, but we won’t. Afghanistan, however, is another matter. And so the proper topic to discuss today is what actions, by a President, allowed yesterday’s speech to happen, if we wish to see another one cheering our exit from Operation Enduring Freedom.

I understand Alan’s desire to beat the WMD and Neocon Hawk drum. It is effective and popular. Fortunately, I think history will give a more nuanced response. One tiny example; Alan says:

UNMOVIC inspectors under Hans Blix were in Iraq for 111 days, and they never found a single WMD.

United States troops were in Iraq for 2,724 days, and they never found a single WMD.

Alan provides a link for the first and not the second. Why? Because its not factually true. We found lots of chemical Weapons of Mass Destruction in Iraq [Updated Author Note: misleading reference to all types of WMDs, including bio, radiological and nuclear weapons, removed for the sake of clarity]. We found old nerve agent filled artillery shells in the Kurdish areas, where Saddam committed genocide in the 1980’s and 1990’s. We found weapons caches of empty bombs, mortars and projectiles, with the main chemical agent filler since evaporated, but still plenty dangerous to handle. We found mustard agent filled rounds in roadside bombs, where it was clear that insurgents were not aware of what type of explosive they were using. Soldiers ended up in hospitals with blister agent burns, nerve agent induced nausea, and the Technical Escort Unit, a Army outfit whose job it is to package and transport chemical weapons, stayed plenty busy flying from their hub in Baghdad all over the country. We found WMDs.

What we didn’t find was enough, or of the right type, to justify an invasion, 4500+ Americans lost, 45,000+ injured, and 100,000+ Iraqi’s killed.

But such debates are only relevant today if Secretary Clinton starts war-mongering in the UN about dropping bombs on Iran. The bigger question now is how to find “success” in Afghanistan. The litany of reasons why Afghanistan is a more difficult problem than Iraq is long and well known: it is larger, younger, more divided, less developed, and has a greater history of violence. The Persians, Turks, Brits and Germans (in that order) all recently successfully conquered Iraq. For such a list in Afghanistan, I have to go back several thousand years.

If I look for Hope in President Obama that we will be successful in Afghanistan, I am left with two troubling pieces of evidence from last night:

1) Then-candidate Obama predicted the Surge in Iraq would fail, and he was wrong. Very, very wrong. He predicted the fresh troops would make no difference, and then, when they did, he said military victory with no political reconciliation was no victory at all. Iraq does not have a government – what is different now? He spent too long reformulating the strategy for Afghanistan, only to end up with essentially the same plan he previously derided. The only thing similar between Iraq and Afghanistan is that it is hot in the summer. Just because a Surge was the right strategy for Iraq does not make it right for Afghanistan, especially when the only clear goal I know of for Afghanistan is to start leaving next year.

2) In an Oval Office speech, only the second of his 20 month tenure, on the end of major combat in Iraq, he spent nearly half the time talking not about Iraq, or Afghanistan, or the military, or foreign policy, but the economy and jobs. Either he is “taking his eye off the ball,” or has political ADD, or is pandering for elections. I find all three a problem, and I question his seriousness, and whether he considers fighting our nation’s wars a priority. 

Alan wants a return to the Powell Doctrine. Too late – we’ve already broke it and bought it. And anyway, it was the Powell Doctrine that got us into this mess. Let’s have some new ideas.

14 Responses to “An End and a Beginning (Updated)”

  1. Alan Bedenko September 1, 2010 at 3:32 pm #

    We found old WMDs from past conflicts. Not evidence of any new production or ramp-ups towards same. We know Saddam had used gas in Kuwait and on Kurds. But that’s not what we were sold in 2003 when Powell addressed the Security Council.

    The war was based on either poor information or lies. Neither one will resurrect a fallen American or innocent Iraqi civilian.

    And the follow-up “rationales”? Hamas and Israel continue to murder each other. What a fundamental waste of lives, money, and dignity.

  2. Brian Castner September 1, 2010 at 3:37 pm #

    You’re right, of course, on what WMDs we did find. But that’s not what you said – your original statement was not qualified. I say the war was based on poor western information, and purposeful strategic ambiguity on the part of Saddam – that’s another post altogether.

    • Alan Bedenko September 1, 2010 at 4:09 pm #

      I’ll be happy to clarify my statement later today.

  3. Gabe September 1, 2010 at 5:42 pm #

    Geez, (like everyone else) stop pretending Afghanistan is a real country. If you can’t get over that hurdle then there’s no potential for an honest debate.

  4. Pauldub September 1, 2010 at 7:43 pm #

    @ Gabe – Define “real” country.

  5. mark September 1, 2010 at 9:56 pm #

    bin laden wanted nothing more than for the US to enter afghanistan since 2000-he got his wish and we are seeing why he wanted us to do so. that nation cannot be tamed by one civilized government. we can only hope our afghanistan mission does not end up with the identical results of the soviet’s experience.

  6. mark September 1, 2010 at 9:58 pm #

    sorry that was a bit off topic i guess. i’m reading “where men win glory” so afghanistan is occupying my brain a lot these days

  7. BobbyCat September 1, 2010 at 10:37 pm #

    We found nuclear weapons in Iraq?? Since when?. If you have proof, you have broken a massive story that the world press will gobble up.

  8. Brian Castner September 2, 2010 at 7:57 am #

    @ Mark – its not off topic, because it asks the reasonable question of “What now in Afghanistan.” The big question in Iraq in 2005-2007 was, “what does winning look like.” We came up with an answer. We haven’t defined what winning looks like in Afghanistan, because we’re (Or, Obama, more specifically) under the mistaken belief that it is Iraq.

    @ BobbyCat – Of course they didn’t find nukes. Did I say they did. I defined WMDs, and how that includes chem, of which we found what I described.

  9. BobbyCat September 2, 2010 at 9:10 am #

    Yes, you did:

    “We found lots of Weapons of Mass Destruction – i.e. chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear weapons – in Iraq.”

    An oversight, I presume. Whenever that happens to me, I blame my editor, or fire her, again.

  10. Brian Castner September 2, 2010 at 9:12 am #

    Yes, poorly worded. I will fire my editor (me, mostly), and update.

  11. Chris in EA September 2, 2010 at 10:42 am #

    @ Pauldub

    You can’t be a real country unless you have a beer and an airline. It helps if you have some kind of a football team, or some nuclear weapons, but at the very least you need a beer.

    -Frank Zappa

    I’m pretty sure that Afghanistan has none of these. It doesn’t even compete at the highest levels of that game where you fight over a dead goat on horseback.

  12. Pauldub September 2, 2010 at 12:11 pm #

    @ Chris in EA
    THey looked pretty good playing that game in Rambo III.

    @ Brian
    Your’e right – It is nothing like Iraq. It has a similarity to Southeast Asia though, and that is my big concern.


  1. The War in Iraq (UPDATED) « - September 2, 2010

    […] States troops were in Iraq for 2,724 days, and they never found a single WMD. As I promised Brian here, I’ll clarify that statement. US forces did find stockpiles of old WMDs that the Saddam […]

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