The cost of a job half-done

  • By John Nagl Special to the Washington Post
  • Friday, June 13, 2014 1:04pm
  • OpinionCommentary

As a veteran of the Iraq war — and proponent of the counterinsurgency strategy that provided a chance for the country to stabilize — watching that country’s recent unraveling has been disheartening but not surprising.

My unit arrived in Anbar province in September 2003, as the Sunni population began to support in earnest an insurgency against the U.S. occupation of the country. Young soldiers were killed by snipers and roadside bombs as their officers struggled to understand the political climate in which the fighting was taking place. We left after a hard year that cost the lives of 22 fine young men but accomplished little on the ground. A captain made coffee mugs that proclaimed sourly, “We were winning when I left.”

I returned to a Pentagon that was in denial, but I found a few who believed that a new strategy of building Iraqi forces to take over the fight could eventually succeed. We struggled to provide trainers and equipment and to find ways to partner with our Iraqi comrades but managed to succeed in the nick of time, pulling Iraq into a possible win. That was the surge.

Then, by declining to provide a long-term security assistance force to an Iraq not yet able to handle the fight itself, we pulled defeat from the jaws of victory and increased the peril our Iraqi friends would face. By not training and equipping Syrian freedom fighters in 2012, we provided an opportunity for al-Qaida to rebuild in the region. The renewed Sunni insurgency in Iraq joined with the worst of the anti-Assad forces in Syria to present a threat greater than the fragile Iraqi government can handle on its own.

We are reaping the instability and increased threat to U.S. interests that we have sown through the failure of our endgame in Iraq and our indecisiveness in Syria. There is a clear lesson here for those contemplating a complete withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan. Having given al-Qaida a new lease on life in the Middle East, will we provide another base where it began, in Afghanistan and Pakistan?

This is not the end-state my friends fought for and died for.

The writer, a veteran of both Iraq wars, is the headmaster of the Haverford School and author of the forthcoming “Knife Fights: A Memoir of Modern War.”

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