Between '91 and '98 I spent three aircraft carrier deployments patrolling the skies over southern Iraq. Operation Southern Watch, as the UN-mandated no-fly zone was called, was designed to ensure that Saddam's military didn't bounce back from the beating it took during Desert Storm.
And it worked. As a result of our 24/7 presence during those years we knew the exact status of the Iraqi military. We knew the location of every MiG fighter, helicopter, tank, surface-to-air missile, and member of the Republican Guard. Saddam's forces were in check.
So imagine my surprise a few years later when the Bush administration suddenly characterized Saddam's Iraq as an "imminent threat." What the heck had happened following my last uneventful Southern Watch sortie?
We now know nothing had really happened. The flawed justification for the invasion of Iraq and the lack of adequate planning in the aftermath of the fall of Baghdad are dubious parts of post-9/11 American history -- the stuff of FOIA requests and memoirs. No weapons of mass destruction were found. The Iraqi people didn't rise up and provide for their own governance and security. The country divided along sectarian lines. An insurgency formed and turned against the supposed liberating force.
In 2005 the outcome was in serious doubt. Military leaders, including the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, were ready to cut their losses (read "declare victory") and get back home while saving as much face as possible in the process. But the same obdurate outlook that allowed George W. Bush to get the nation involved in a second war on the basis of shoddy intel caused him to see the logic provided by one Gen. David Petraeus. It wasn't time to cut and run; it was time to double down.
The Petraeus-designed "surge" in Iraq used the military think tank hook of "counter insurgency" or "COIN," which on paper involved less of the "kinetic" warfare (AKA "door kicking") used to that point and more earning the trust of tribal leaders and leveraging their issues toward desirable outcomes. In practice -- while additional American troops provided enough breathing room for a central Iraqi government to get the most precarious of toe holds -- it was as much about funding all sides as it was winning hearts and minds.
The surge serendipitously coincided with the "Anbar Awakening" -- the Sunnis in the western region of Iraq unilaterally deciding to attempt a more peaceful path -- and those elements combined to turn the tide against the insurgency. Security improved to the point that Obama withdrew all "combat" forces, leaving 50,000 troops behind for any contingencies that might arise. And then last week -- with the concurrence of the Iraq government -- the president announced that the balance of the American military was withdrawing by the end of the year.
After 4,480 U.S. troops killed, more than 32,000 wounded, and a price tag that some budget experts put in the trillions of dollars, the Iraq War is nearly over. The damage to the U.S. military in terms of hardware will take years to fix. And the spiritual damage -- the unseen wounds of what is generally viewed by those who fought in both Iraq and Afghanistan as the more savage of the two wars -- will be felt by warfighters (and their families) for the rest of their lives.
It's unclear what we'll leave behind once we exit. Critics of Obama's redeployment plan claim that the complete withdrawal is happening too quickly and that Iran will sweep in and fill the void -- ironic since most of the same critics seemed unconcerned about the unintended but not unforeseen consequences of invading Iraq back in 2003.
Whatever the outcome it's doubtful that military historians will label it as a "victory," and that combined with the toll the war has exacted should serve as a cautionary tale for all of us.