Iraq War Reaches Three Years

Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld tries to explain, “What We’ve Gained In 3 Years in Iraq” in an op-ed in today’s WaPo. He informs us that,

The terrorists seem to recognize that they are losing in Iraq. I believe that history will show that to be the case.

Fortunately, history is not made up of daily headlines, blogs on Web sites or the latest sensational attack. History is a bigger picture, and it takes some time and perspective to measure accurately.

Aside from the fact that “blog” is a sort of contraction for “Web log” and that all of them are therefore on Web sites (it’s amazing that his staffers allowed him to make such a ridiculous gaffe) that’s certainly true. Of course, we don’t yet have the advantage of hindsight. The future is what one might term a “known unknown.” So, what are the known knowns?

Consider that in three years Iraq has gone from enduring a brutal dictatorship to electing a provisional government to ratifying a new constitution written by Iraqis to electing a permanent government last December. In each of these elections, the number of voters participating has increased significantly — from 8.5 million in the January 2005 election to nearly 12 million in the December election — in defiance of terrorists’ threats and attacks.

This is undeniable and objectively a good thing. Of course, it has come at a steep price: the (hopefully short term) transformation of Iraq into a killing zone with tens of thousands of dead, mostly innocents caught in the crossfire.

One of the most important developments over the past year has been the increasing participation of Iraq’s Sunni community in the political process. In the volatile Anbar province, where Sunnis are an overwhelming majority, voter turnout grew from 2 percent in January to 86 percent in December. Sunni sheiks and religious leaders who previously had been sympathetic to the insurgency are today meeting with coalition representatives, encouraging Iraqis to join the security forces and waging what violent extremists such as Abu al-Zarqawi and his al-Qaeda followers recognize as a “large-scale war” against them.

The terrorists are determined to stoke sectarian tension and are attempting to spark a civil war. But despite the many acts of violence and provocation, the vast majority of Iraqis have shown that they want their country to remain whole and free of ethnic conflict. We saw this last month after the attack on the Shiite shrine in Samarra, when leaders of Iraq’s various political parties and religious groups condemned the violence and called for calm.

Another significant transformation has been in the size, capability and responsibility of Iraqi security forces. And this is vitally important, because it is Iraqis, after all, who must build and secure their own nation. Today, some 100 Iraqi army battalions of several hundred troops each are in the fight, and 49 control their own battle space. About 75 percent of all military operations in the country include Iraqi security forces, and nearly half of those are independently Iraqi-planned, Iraqi-conducted and Iraqi-led. Iraqi security forces have a greater ability than coalition troops to detect a foreign terrorist’s accent, identify local suspects and use force without increasing a feeling of occupation. It was these Iraqi forces — not U.S. or coalition troops — that enforced curfews and contained the violence after the attack on the Golden Dome Shrine in Samarra. To be sure, violence of various stripes continues to slow Iraq’s progress. But the coalition is doing everything possible to see this effort succeed and is making adjustments as appropriate.

Again, true as far as it goes. One could argue, though, that this does not represent a “gain” if the baseline is the status quo ante bellum. Saddam’s security forces were doing a remarkable job of enforcing law and order. Of course, they were doing so in addition to regular massacres of the dictator’s political opponents real and perceived.

The rationale for a free and democratic Iraq is as compelling today as it was three years ago. A free and stable Iraq will not attack its neighbors, will not conspire with terrorists, will not pay rewards to the families of suicide bombers and will not seek to kill Americans.

True enough. But the current Iraq is much more of a hotbed of suicide bombers and other terrorists than it was three years ago.

Though there are those who will never be convinced that the cause in Iraq is worth the costs, anyone looking realistically at the world today — at the terrorist threat we face — can come to only one conclusion: Now is the time for resolve, not retreat.

While I agree with the conclusion, that’s not exactly an argument.

Consider that if we retreat now, there is every reason to believe Saddamists and terrorists will fill the vacuum — and the free world might not have the will to face them again. Turning our backs on postwar Iraq today would be the modern equivalent of handing postwar Germany back to the Nazis. It would be as great a disgrace as if we had asked the liberated nations of Eastern Europe to return to Soviet domination because it was too hard or too tough or we didn’t have the patience to work with them as they built free countries.

Well, no. Indeed, there is virtually no chances of Saddamists “filling the vacuum.” The end result of our departure would almost surely be either a Shiite dominated state or the splitting of Iraq into multiple states along tribal lines. Both outcomes would, of course, be much worse from our perspective than a stable democracy. Further, even Saddam lacked the power to be a Hitler or Stalin. It is highly unlikely that any follow-on society would have the ability to conquer its neighbors.

The post-Communist Eastern Europe analogy is more interesting, although beyond my historical insight to analyze fully. Certainly, the transition in many states was quite bloody, perhaps on a scale comparable to what we’re seeing in Iraq today. There were–and doubtless still are–those who would prefer the return of the USSR to the status quo. In some cases, too, the outcome in those states are still in doubt.

Ironically, however, the United States did virtually nothing in any of those cases. We intervened very late in the game in Bosnia and Kosovo and remained totally out of the struggles in the non-European former Soviet Republics.

What we need to understand is that the vast majority of the Iraqi people want the coalition to succeed. They want better futures for themselves and their families. They do not want the extremists to win. And they are risking their lives every day to secure their country.

Quite true. It doesn’t necessarily follow that we must do anything about that.

George Will argues that it’s time for the administration to change its rhetoric on Iraq. He advises them to “accentuate the negative and eliminate the positive — that is, emphasize the dangers of failure and de-emphasize talk about Iraq’s becoming a democracy that ignites emulative transformation in the Middle East.”

WaPo also publishes a one week diary by Iraqi dentist-blogger Zeyad, which he concludes, “A quiet day, which left me to ponder a question that haunts me: We Iraqis continue to live between the hammer of terrorists and the anvil of American, British and Iraqi security forces. But what kind of a people are we to respond by killing our own?”

FILED UNDER: Blogosphere, Democracy, Middle East, Uncategorized, US Constitution, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Jamie says:

    It�s amazing that his staffers allowed him to make such a ridiculous gaffe.

    Tell me you don’t honestly believe Rumsfeld sat down at a computer and drafted this himself. i’ll bet dollars to donuts he hasn’t even read it, much less wrote it.

  2. Herb says:

    On 9/11, we all watched TV and saw 3000 people killed. At the time, we all thought that as many as 10,000 had been killed in the attack. We then wittnessed as Congress passed the legislation to provide Millions and Millions of Dollars for NY City. That low cost terrorist attack cost each and every American taxpayer a bundle. We then saw President Bush declare war on Terrorism and heard him stand before a Joint Session Of Congress and address the entire nation say that the war would talke a long time to win and cost many lives. How quickly we all have forgotten.

    Now, we have all seemed to have forgotten all that and being typical American, wonder why we are still fighting a war on terror and why it is costing so many dollars. We are in a state now of hearing from every expert from an authorty on goats to an authorty on everything about the war. The problem is, they are an authorty on NOTHING and most are just seeking their 15 minutes of fame.

    In other words, We have digressed back to the 60’s and the Vietnam era where every mal-content druggie, hippie, yippie and flower child is out there marching and shooting off their big mouths about something there were told by the MSM and a lot of Democrats like Murtha was and is a disaster without many facts to back up their mouths. As for the “marchers” they are probably to “High” to know where they are. I can only best describe them as “Sheep” As for the politicians, thay are politicians and that says it all.

    I wonder just how much in Dollars and how many lives would have been lost if Bush would NOT have taken the action he did in Afganistan and Iraq. Would you feel or be safe waiting for a train, plane or bus or even walking down the street, for that matter, if we did nothing, saved all that money and have the terrorist lurking, ploting and taking action right here at home?

  3. anjin-san says:


    Get a grip. Iraq did not have a damn thing to do with 9-11.

  4. ATS says:

    So much of the present mess was predictable�and was indeed predicted�but everyone was in the post-911 Superbowl flyover mood. The abuse the critics took makes it a sure bet that forgiveness will come slowly. Being called traitors will do that, even to people of good will.

  5. James Joyner says:

    Jamie: No, I don’t think he personally wrote anything beyond dictating an outline and maybe some editorial corrections after staffers finished writing it for him. But, surely, the thing was staffed at the end of the day to ensure that the SECDEF didn’t embarrass himself. Why such an obvious gaffe got past is unclear.

    Herb: While I disagree with anjin-san that Iraq has nothing to do with 9/11 and the GWOT, it’s not entirely clear three years into it that the war has made the homeland safer.

    It’s not about whether the war was well intentioned but whether it’s achieving the stated objectives. The jury is still out on that.

  6. Aaron Brazell says:

    The fact that he used “blog” in this context demonstrates a common and annoying tendency by those who really have no concept of what a blog is – that “blog” means “entry”.

    “Blogs on websites” are just entries on blogs.


  7. ken says:

    Herb: While I disagree with anjin-san that Iraq has nothing to do with 9/11 and the GWOT

    Oh, so James disagrees that Iraq had nothing to do with 9/11?

    James, how is anyone to take you seriously if you promote such utter and total nonsense?

    Or are you satisfied just appealing to pinheads like Herb who are too stupid to ever get it right?

  8. mannning says:

    What does 9/11, Iraq, Iran, Syria, and Saudi Arabia have in common? Did I hear anyone mention the faith of Muhammad and Allah? And what does that faith stand for, as documented in its Koran and many fatwas? Death to infidels.

    What connection is there between these countries? The fact of oil dollars, a flood of it, redirected from SA and Iran to support their adherents in performing acts of terrorism in the US, Iraq, Israel and worldwide. What makes Islam such a threat? 15 centuries of stored up hate for Christians and Jews as preached every day to them by their religious leaders.

    What makes us so weak regarding this clash of civilizations? Abhorrance of war and bloodshed, and the tattered hope of a rapproachment with Islam. We Americans, at least over 40% of us, do not have the guts to face the fact that we are at war with Islam. You hear apologists saying that we are only fighting a small sect of Muslim extremists, and the majority are peaceloving and moderate. This is sheer wishful thinking.

    The cult that runs the terrorists can convert ANY Muslim into a suicide bonber within a few days, as I have posted before. There is no derth of suicide bombers available to Hamas, AQ, and the like. Muslims are available everywhere for their grisly duty to Muhammad when called.

    A few in the US see this need to fight the Muslims on their own territory. To force them to fight because of their own religious laws that say an attack on one of the Islamic nations must be resisted by all. Thus they fight us in Iraq, paid for by our petrodollars, and the dishonest support of arms suppliers from not too friendly nations.

    But some of you must spend your energies in castigating our leadership, dreaming up lies to undermine our efforts, and making a circus out of every event that comes along, by tagging the Administration with the fault, regardless of the facts. You argue about the number of angels that can be placed on the head of a pin, while the clothes go unmended. You excuse your own leadership when they speak with traitorus words. Many of you actually hate this country, much to the surprise of ordinary citizens.

    You will deserve the world you inherit.

  9. anjin-san says:

    Wonder why our boy manning is not doing combat duty in Bush’s “mission” since he feels so strongly about the issue. Guess he is leaving the fighting to real men while he handles the typing.

  10. anjin-san says:


    By all means, share with the group and show us Iraq’s complicity in 9-11.

  11. Herb says:

    It is amazing that we see those who completely fail to either face reality or see whats right in front of their faces. Both Ken and AJ seem to live in a world of dreams driven by hate, mistrust or just plain stupidity. They couldn’t see a tree if they were in the middle of a Forrest. I can only conclude they these guys would rather see terrorist in our streets rather that in Baghdad.

    It is sad indeed that such hate driven thought has taken over their natural senses and causes them to write such garbage as we all see here in their comments.

  12. McGehee says:

    Wonder why our boy manning is not doing combat duty in Bush�s �mission� since he feels so strongly about the issue.

    Anjin-san just raised the “chickenhawk” meme! Everybody do a shot!

  13. legion says:

    While I know it’s not what Rumsfeld meant, am I the only one who sees this:

    Turning our backs on postwar Iraq today would be the modern equivalent of handing postwar Germany back to the Nazis.

    as sounding like an incredible insult to the Iraqi people? Does anyone know how this is playing on the “Arab Street”?

    I remember Rumsfeld saying he “doesn’t do diplomacy”, but jeezy creezy, with poorly thought-out statements like this, can’t we just put a muzzle on the man?

  14. anjin-san says:


    No one doubts that you are busy getting drunk and cheering the war from your living room while others do the bleeding…

  15. Gingt says:

    Rumsfled’s surreal Washington Post op-ed is best understood by reading General Paul Eaton’s op-ed in yesterday’s NY Times:

    Eaton’s assessment is right on target.

  16. mannning says:

    I wonder if anjin-san served on the front lines in a real war as I did. I suggest he is trying to denegrate the messenger since he can’t alter the truth. How many heads have to roll, and innocent civilians blown up before this sort of person realizes that this is a war to the death.

    Has anyone seen a huge Muslim backlash over any of the flashpoints in this war? No. Why is that? It is because they have been taught that Muslims are in the right to attack the West, and because they will be attacked themselves, and possibly killed, if they go against current Islamic policies. So they cower in their homes and hope this all blows over.

    Our best hope is that those Muslims who are against the terrorism and murder, will rise up and force the jihadists to stop their crusade. But, I have seen no signs that this is happening.

    Does it frighten anyone that there are over six million Mislims in the US now, any of which can be turned into terrorists by the Islamofascists in a heartbeat?

  17. anjin-san says:

    hmmm manning is another online war hero. Now thats something you don’t see every day. The army needs combat vets, wonder if he will step up. Somehow I doubt it.

  18. Herb says:

    Anjin San:

    Why don’t you address Mannings comments without you usual snide and hateful rhetoric. It seems to be your style to sit by and stick your big nose into comments by making hateful comments yourself and never addressing the issue.

    When the Republicans win again in 08, you will be ready for the nut farm or are you already there fooling yourself that you are a candidate for release.

    Damn, you really are a sorry excuse for humanity.