“Flags in” with The Old Guard in Arlington National Cemetery

The United States has not lost the war in Iraq. I know this isn’t a popular opinion in popular culture or even the military. Operation Iraqi Freedom has become the textbook example of how not to conduct a war, how not to use the military, how not to fight terrorism, you name it. I am not saying we did a great job during that conflict, and I don’t think that many would try to argue that. I do think that while we made many mistakes, we didn’t lose the war then and we haven’t lost the war now.

A key assumption I’m making here is that we are still fighting the same war we fought when we invaded Iraq in 2003. We are still fighting in Iraq, even though we don’t have boots on the ground. We have planes in the skies, advisors with the Iraqis, and there are Delta Force operators running around killing people and breaking things. Unlike the SEALs they won’t make four books, two documentaries, a TV show and a feature-length film out of it, but rest assured they are there. Our enemies are the same they were then (with the exception of Saddam and bin Laden, because we snuffed out those shining beacons of civility).

So, if we are fighting a war, then what are the aims? In our second season match-up with Iraq, George Bush stated that the goal was to create an independent, democratic, and stable Iraq allied with the United States. Another implied goal was to deny terrorists a safe haven from which to attack the West. So how have we done? It seems that we’ve done terribly. ISIS is in control of Iraqi territory to the north and the government troops seem to have been largely ineffective in combating them. The government does not have a good history of smoothing sectarian tension between the Sunnis and the Shi’a. Different rebel groups have carved out swaths of territory. It seems to be a lost cause.

Between the Articles of Confederation, various rebellions that were quelled, and British intervention in 1812, the United States didn’t exactly build itself overnight.

The reality is that although the Iraqi government is certainly struggling mightily, it is gaining ground and solidifying its gains. It is in fact democratically elected, even though it doesn’t seem like it. The government that formed in 2005 is parliamentary in nature, and even though it’s had its rough patches, it’s gotten better. The Sunni boycott of the first national elections in 2005 caused a Shi’a majority in the government which led to Iraqi-sponsored sectarian violence. Since then the government has reformed its election laws and procedures, meaning that wider swaths of the population feel encouraged to participate in the government because they now know the consequences of not making their voices heard.

To compare, how long did America struggle after its Revolutionary War? Between the Articles of Confederation, various rebellions that were quelled, and British intervention in 1812, the United States didn’t exactly build itself overnight. We had internal struggles caused by taxation, we needed to reform an ineffective system of government that treated states almost as mini-countries, and we dealt with the empire of Great Britain who still wanted to impose its will. Hell they burned down the White House. Even a century into our “democratic experiment” we had to fight a war to keep the country from splitting up over the use of slavery. The point is that we’ve had a rough road to democracy, and we need to understand that Iraq can’t take our Western system of democracy and apply it to the Middle East overnight, just as we couldn’t perfect our form of democracy overnight.

The last point that most people bring up is that the Iraqi military is ineffective. I certainly wouldn’t say they are a bunch of Rangers, but they are effective enough. They were pushed, kicked, and prodded out of Northern Iraq by ISIS fighters last year, but since then they have learned and adapted. Their special forces are very proficient and have been able to protect cities such as Tikrit and Baghdad from the onslaught. Since we disbanded Saddam’s military in 2003, the current Iraqi military is nearly brand new, and as any new organization they need time to learn and grow. In the meantime, they have been containing ISIS to a remote sector of their country and I am confident that they will develop the proficiency to drive them out eventually.

In short, I don’t argue that we won in 2011, I don’t argue that Iraq is a successful state, and I don’t argue that we are done intervening in the country. I do want to combat the pessimism surrounding our efforts there in recent years. Iraq is weak but growing stronger. It’s only been 4 years since we left, and Foreign Policy ranks it higher on their Fragile State Index than Afghanistan. It’s higher than Syria, a dictator state in which we did not intervene. Its government has a rough history with sectarian conflict, but it’s getting better. It’s miles ahead of Saddam’s regime to be sure. The military has been kicked around a lot, but our influence and the influence of Iraq’s elite formations are helping it get better and better. There are many reasons to be cynical about Iraq and our role in forming it, but for a change lets be optimistic. Look what it did for our country (thanks France!).

[U.S. Army photo by Rachel Larue]

CDT LT Jack Schaaf is a senior at the United States Military Academy and specializes in history and strategic studies. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Army, Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.