After nearly nine years of war, tens of thousands of casualties--including 4,500 Americans dead--and more than $800 billion spent, the U.S. military on Thursday formally ended its mission in Iraq and prepared to leave the country.
For years, U.S. commanders in Iraq have handed off to their successors the top call sign, Lion 6, along with the American battle flag adorned with a Mesopotamian sphinx. But on Thursday, in a tradition-drenched ceremony with Defense Secretary Leon Panetta looking on, the current Lion 6—Army Gen. Lloyd Austin—pulled down the colors and cased them for a return to the U.S.
"No words, no ceremony, can provide full tribute to the sacrifices that brought this day to pass," Mr. Panetta said.
In the coming days, the last of the 4,000 U.S. military personnel still in Iraq will follow the flag and head home—leaving fewer than 200 to serve as part of the diplomatic mission.
There was, of course, a certain irony in today's events. As with most modern wars, there was no surrender ceremony, and there won't be any ticker-tape parades through New York City for our returning heroes. And no one used the word "victory" to describe the outcome of our nine-year stay in Iraq.
Sadly, that is also a reflection of our times. After almost a decade (and thousands of war dead), no one appears willing to call Iraq a victory, given that country's uncertain future. Iran is already moving to fill the power vacuum created by the departure of our troops, and it's easy to envision an Iraq that (at some point) will be closely aligned with Tehran.
And, perhaps future historians will note that we had the opportunity to extend our stay in Iraq, providing more training for the domestic forces now charged with keeping the peace. But we took a pass on that option, in the name of election-year politics. As a politician who long opposed the war in Iraq, President Obama will be happy to run for re-election as the man "who brought the troops home."
But before the colors fade, and Iraq becomes a chapter in our history books (or a sound bite for a campaign commercial), it is well worth remembering the sacrifice, heroism and valor of the men and women who served there. All were volunteers, and many pulled multiple tours in Iraq, enduring months and years of separation from family, friends and loved ones.
They deserve credit for not only performing their duty, but transforming Iraq in the process. After the toppling of Saddam's government, Iraq began a slide into chaos, as old sectarian divides resurfaced, with scores to be settled. Al Qaida joined the fray as well, pouring thousands of jihadis into the battle, hoping to inflict massive casualties on the U.S. and drive us from Iraq.
But those efforts failed. A U.S. military designed for large-scale maneuver warfare shifted its focus to small-unit, counter-insurgency operations. aimed at eliminating terrorist networks and protecting the Iraqi people. And, at a critical juncture in the battle, President Bush went against the counsel of so-called "wise men" (and women) in Washington, adopting a surge strategy that sent even more troops to Iraq. Our new commander in Iraq, General David Petraeus, put more ground forces out in the field, based among the Iraqi citizens they were charged with defending.
There were months of bitter fighting in 2007 and American casualties actually rose, and the pace of our operations increased. But the surge worked, breaking the back of enemy resistance. Iraq became a much more peaceful place as thousands of terrorists met their end, eventually prompting Al Qaida to look at more promising operational theaters--namely Afghanistan.
The efforts of U.S. and Iraqi troops, along with the coalition partners also allowed Iraq to form a fledgling democracy. Iraqis defied terrorist threats and violence to go the polls for free and fair elections, dipping their fingers in purple ink wells that signified they had voted. It was a powerful rebuke to the terrorists and one of the earliest indicators that Iraqis were willing to do their part--if the U.S. stayed the course.
While some Iraqis are cheering the departure of our last troops, others are worried about what comes next. The U.S. spent billions of dollars training and equipping Iraq's security forces, and many of them are extremely competent. But they will face a real test in the months and years ahead, as Iran tries to exert its influence, and sectarian groups push their own agendas.
In the end, it might be written, the U.S. gave Iraq a fighting chance for a democratic future. It is now up to the sons and daughters of that country to preserve what was established in blood and treasure. In today's world, it may be the best outcome we could hope for. But on the other hand, we should also hope that historians and war college students in 2020 aren't debating about "who lost Iraq," due to a hasty pull-out.
ADDENDUM: If you know someone who served in Iraq, thank them for their service. They helped introduce a genuine "Arab Spring," creating security conditions that helped foster the most democratic regime in that part of the world (with the exception of Israel). Compare that to the more recent Arab uprisings that are ushering in new authoritarian regimes. The contrast between Iraq and what is happening in Egypt could not be more clear. We can only hope that Iraq's democracy survives the tough road ahead, so the sacrifice of thousands of young Americans will not have been in vain.