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By Damaging Our Partnerships, We Damage Our Security

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As the war in Iraq enters its sixth year, official US casualty figures approach 4,000 dead and nearly 30,000 wounded. These figures exclude the many who have less visible but no less damaging injuries to mental health; those whose injuries resulted from accidents while they served in a war zone; and the scores of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of Iraqi civilians who have died and been wounded since this misguided war was launched. These are the most meaningful - and the saddest - costs of this war.

We know, however, that these statistics, along with the hundreds of billions of dollars already spent to date, do not fully measure the costs of this war. There are other serious casualties - ones that have potentially severe consequences to our national security and our personal safety but are difficult to quantify. The most concerning of these is the damage the war has caused to our international standing and the partnerships that are vital to address the very real continuing risks to our safety posed by al Qaeda. By invading Iraq, we have, in effect "cried wolf" - we've used up our international chits and credibility attacking a country that had nothing to do with 9-11 and had virtually no connection to al Qaeda.

Just last week we learned that after five years of research by the U.S. Joint Forces Command, based on more than 600,000 captured documents, including audio and video files, the Pentagon determined conclusively that there was no evidence of a Saddam - al Qaeda link. Meanwhile, both our Director of National Intelligence and Secretary of Defense recently testified that al Qaeda has regenerated in the Afghan-Pakistan border region and that "there's no doubt that they have the intent of attacking the United States."

Our presence in Iraq, at the expense of a more robust and sustained military effort in the Afghan-Pakistan border region, has now strained the continued willingness of NATO countries to support the pursuit of al Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan. NATO's supreme Commander John Craddock, in recent testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, put it rather starkly. Afghanistan and the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force, he said, are at a "critical juncture." The reluctance of NATO countries to increase or even continue support in Afghanistan "increase[s] the risk to every soldier, sailor, airman and marine deployed in theater." In short, through our continued presence in Iraq, and the resulting inadequate focus on the Afghan-Pakistani border areas, we are compromising our key security partnerships and joint security initiatives in the places where they matter the most. One can only wonder what the willingness - and capacity - of our historic partners will be if a crisis erupts elsewhere in the world and truly requires joint military action.

Our five years in Iraq has not only hurt our relationship with other nations, but with local populations worldwide, especially in the Middle East. The percentage of people who view the United States as a positive influence in public affairs is shrinking. Even worse, our presence in Iraq is used as a recruiting tool for al Qaeda and has generated a level of political turbulence around the world that has given way to a new variety of al Qaeda-style militants. These militants are gaining prominence in many countries that have traditionally been our allies. The longer we remain in Iraq, the longer these new strains of extremism will threaten the security of the region, and in turn our nation. As long as the President's policies continue, Iraq will continue to be what the Intelligence Community has called a "cause celebre" for a new generation of terrorists.

We must not lose sight of the need for extensive and dedicated partners in our multifaceted fight against terrorism. We must repair, respect and strengthen these partnerships. They are essential to our security. But we can only do so by demonstrating that we understand where our precious military resources, and the military resources of our partners, must be engaged - and where they must not be engaged. We do our troops, our nation and our international partners a disservice if we do not make and act on this distinction today.

Read more HuffPost coverage and reaction to the fifth anniversary of the war in Iraq