The surge of 2007-2008, and subsequent operations, at least temporarily reversed a crisis and the men and women involved have every right to be proud. In particular, helping to orchestrate the Anbar uprising against Al Qaeda. But, as many participants I’ve met acknowledge, those achievements seem to be mostly tactical, fragile and reversible. Ultimately, it may be that the surge only postponed a civil war, or a series of internal wars.
At the grand strategic level, even if the Iraqi state holds on and strengthens stability in the country, Christopher Fettweis makes a depressing point:
Thomas Ricks quotes a ‘senior intelligence official’ in Iraq as saying that the long-term American goal after the surge is ‘a stable Iraq that is unified, at peace with its neighbours, and is able to police its internal affairs, so it isn’t a sanctuary for Al Qaeda. Preferably a friend to us, but it doesn’t have to be.’ Presumably one could add the absence of weapons of mass destruction to this scaled-back list of goals, and perhaps the continuation of uninterrupted flow of oil from the Gulf. In other words, if all goes well over the next few years, and there is obviously no guarantee that it will, the United States might be able to restore an Iraq that looks quite a bit like the one it found in 2003, only with a dictator marginally more friendly to the United States.
The cost of this restoration of the virtual status quo ante will be at least 4,500 American dead and some 30,000 wounded, somewhere around 100,000 Iraqis killed and millions more displaced, and three trillion U.S. taxpayer dollars spent (which is a conservative estimate once interest on the war debt and lifetime payments to disabled servicemen are taken into account). Using the traditional meaning of the term, the decision to invade Iraq may well be the most imprudent action this country has ever taken.