During the president’s last State of the Union address, he spent considerable time discussing the war in Iraq; it was probably the most prominent part of his speech, with almost a quarter of the time devoted to the subject. While it was the dominant theme this year, the president did not address Iraq until almost 25 minutes into his 53-minute speech.
Mr. President, there are 180,000 American troops in Iraq and Afghanistan and tens of thousands more deployed to nearby countries in support. That should have been the lead topic last night. After all, the longest and loudest ovations from the audience were in support of American forces, as it should be. Regardless of party affiliation or stance on the war, there is universal support for the men and women of the armed forces.
As we all expected, the president cited the success of the 2007 troop buildup in Iraq. From a military point of view, there is no denying that the current strategy has been effective. With the addition of 22,500 American troops, Gen. David Petreaus was able to stop the sectarian violence, convince Sunni leaders to turn on the Iraqi wing of Al-Qaida and stem the flow of Iranian support to Shiite militias.
That said, one could take the change in strategy as a condemnation of the course taken during the period beginning with the fall of Baghdad in 2003 to early 2007. Why did it take so long to get it right? Why did we have to lose so many young men and women, and have these young troops pay the price, before we figured it out?
What changed? There was a transformational shift after the fall of Baghdad when we were forced to transition from an invasion, what some call a “liberation” force, to an occupation force. Having had no recent experience in this type pf operation, we adopted the Vietnam “fire base” mentality. Build secure areas. The Green Zone is the best example, but Camp Victory and dozens of facilities like it underscore the flawed policy, then go forth and engage the enemy, defeat them, then retire to the secure area.
Counterinsurgency 101 says that once you depart an area you have taken by force of arms, you have ceded it to the enemy. Just as we did in Vietnam, we did this in Iraq for over three years. When insurgents engaged American forces, they lost. However, the bad guys soon learned that the Americans preferred to return to base and not stand on the ground they won in battle.
With the additional forces during the surge, Gen. Petreaus changed that dynamic. U.S. forces moved into the areas where they were assigned, living in the cities instead of in what amounted to forts on the frontier. Violence declined, the tribal leaders turned on al-Qaida and the situation improved.
This is good news, but continues to raise the question of why we didn't do this four years ago. In reality, the current successes indicate past failures. The stated goal of the military surge was to provide a window of opportunity for the Iraqis to achieve political reconciliation. Although the president cited some minor Iraqi political gains, they are far from where they need to be.
Sen. Joe Biden said that the American military has accomplished its mission. We need to hold our Iraqi allies accountable and encourage them to step up to the plate and deliver the political angle. Otherwise, our sacrifices, blood and treasure, have been in vain.