The withdrawal of American troops from Iraqi cities today marks a turning point for the war in Iraq, and leaves me with mixed feelings about the current situation and the war overall.
I see it as a success that the security situation has improved so much that US forces basically aren't needed to protect the urban populations anyway. Whether it was an arbitrary date or not, it sort of turned out to be an event-driven one -- at least in terms of security. I can't express the pride I feel for the sacrifice and adaptability of the troops who made this success possible.
I remember being at a small outpost on the outskirts of Balad in July of 2003. My photographer colleague and I hired two seats in a convoy of Suburbans heading out of Amman to a hotel in Baghdad, where we based ourselves for six weeks to cover the beginnings of the occupation.
We went on a raid one night out of the small base -- which had no electricity, no air conditioning, no refrigeration -- with a group from the 4th ID based on intel gained from a short trip into town by the company commander who slipped in with his translator (terp) wearing a dishdash and driving in a captured taxi cab. This was two months after the "mission accomplished" speech and I was amazed at the initiative of the troops there that early on.
I went to Sadr city then too. The fetid stench of sewage and rotten trash wafting into the gritty dust thrown up by the totally unarmored Humvee we were in. Kids threw rocks at us. "That means they like us," one Soldier told me. "I think...."
Then there was the victory lap with Marines in southern towns. The Shiite population there was overjoyed with the US victory and the overthrown Saddam. I was in a small camp in Diwaniyah when Udeh and Kuseh Hussein were killed. There was so much celebratory fire, a Marine standing post on a rooftop nearby was injured when a round came down out of the sky and hit him in the leg.
I remember standing on the street corner just outside what was still not yet called the Green Zone (the troops from the 2nd ACR called it the MOAC: mother of all checkpoints) at 9pm waiting for a driver from the AP to pick me and a couple colleagues up after a trip into the field. I didn't think for one second that something would happen to me at the time.
Then it all changed from hope to despair.
I returned to a very different Iraq in late 2005. For a month I cowered in the back of a Marine Humvee in Ramadi dodging IEDs on nightly patrols and raids. My first night there in early December, a coordinated IED attack maimed several Marines and killed two after they'd dismounted from a 7 ton truck to fix a Humvee disabled by a previous bomb. I went along on the QRF and watched as Marines picked up combat boots filled with severed feet and legs.
In Hit, we were in the boondocks for a month. The desert "ratlines" that funneled suicide bombers into Iraq from Syria. It was tense but quiet, until a group of insurgents tried to overrun the camp I was in guarded by a single platoon of Marines. We joked together that the Iraq war had turned into the war on drugs -- every time you grab an insurgent or uncover a (massive) weapons cache, there's three more that pop up right alongside it (or him). We were never going to win this war, we thought.
And then it all changed. I remember thinking to myself even after the first trip to Iraq that the main problem was the Iraqis themselves. They refused to act. They refused to reject being cooped in someone else's failing agenda (the islamists). They failed to stand up for themselves and confront the violence that no one wanted. Why weren't we guilting them into acting?
Then we did. There was a tipping point there. Not sure when, but something showed the community leaders there that throwing their lot in with AQ wasn't going to get them where they needed to go. The Iraqis didn't strike me as particularly radical people -- they weren't ripe for the Taliban or the Iranian mullahs. But something clearly convinced local leaders to side with the US and stand up against AQ. Whether it was the severed head of a cousin to Abdul-Satter Abu Risha delivered to his doorstep that did it or what, I don't know. But something tipped the balance.
Then it was hard fighting and close teaming and tough, thorough training that got the job done. The troops stuck to their guns. They refused to relent. They bit their tongues when they saw the Iraqi forces acting like idiots. They kept cajoling them into the fight. And they did it. As Steve Colbert said: "We won..."
I went back to the new Iraq in early 2008 and I was stunned. I was also bored. One month with combat units there -- Marines and Army -- and not a single raid. No incoming rockets. Not even a stray AK round from a Friday wedding party. Everything had changed.
And this is where we find ourselves today.
Am I nervous about how this is all going to shake out? Yes. But I'm confident that Iraq has passed the point of no return. I'm confident that they will not revert to the chaos and jihadist mayhem of 2006 and '07. DO they have "reconciliation?" No. But do we? Do they have a hydrocarbon law yet? No. But can you even conceive of how complex such a law would be? Could you see the US coming up with one? The only states in the region that have them are theocracies or kingdoms. No one voted on those.
But at the end of the day it's been a major triumph for our armed forces. Politicians in the US certainly didn't help much. The troops stuck to the guns, put their heads down and worked hard to make it a success. They didn't involve themselves in the debates -- there is no debate, right? You execute your orders and you do them decisively. The military did way more than they were trained to do. And they did it without complaint and with amazing skill and aptitude.
I am glad to have witnessed and been a part -- in a small way -- of this very unpopular war. It's when the chips are down; when nobody says you'll win; when all support has faded away where character is found. Those who fought, worked and died there had it. And we should be exceptionally proud of those who will never quite brush all that talcum sand out of their boots ever again.