Only a couple of weeks ago, President Barack Obama announced the full withdrawal of US troops from Iraq by December 31, 2011, putting an end to nearly nine years of US military engagement in which more than 4,400 US soldiers and more than 10,000 Iraqi soldiers and police force members lost their lives. One might ask, why now? Is it because the US has achieved the goals set forth in the Authorization for Use of Military Force Against Iraq Resolution (AUMF) and UN Security Council Resolution 1441? What were those goals? Preventing Iraq from using weapons of mass destruction? Keeping Iraq from acquiring weapons of mass destruction? Ousting Saddam Hussein in order to tackle possible, yet unlikely, links between al Qaeda and the then-Iraqi regime, ergo fighting terror? Stabilizing the Middle East to preserve international peace and security?
Admittedly, Saddam Hussein is no longer causing trouble, nor is Osama Bin Laden. Weapons of mass destruction are certainly more out of reach for the Iraqi government than they were in 2003, assuming that it even seeks to acquire weapons of mass destruction. And yet, the question arises whether the mission has been accomplished, whether this is what victory looks like? Although traditional combat action is no longer taking place, deadly bombings and shootings still occur daily, inducing a constant state of fear and terror. Just a few days ago, 43 civilians were killed in bomb attacks, increasing the number of casualties in December to 111. Is this truly what victory looks like? Is this a situation in which we would like to leave the Iraqi people on their own, abandoning a highly volatile state of affairs that could easily turn into another pre-September 11, 2001 Afghanistan? Well, I guess nobody seriously thinks so. The Obama administration, of course, is well aware of that. Yet, it withdraws the troops despite the AUMF promises to make sure that "the just demands of peace and security will be met." It is withdrawing its troops because this war was and still is costly. An incredibly sad amount of blood has been shed and an enormous sum of money has been spent. In the end, a decision to discontinue military engagement is always subject to a cost-benefit calculation. Since the benefit, not only to the US, but also to its Western allies, is not as tangible and predictable as their costs in terms of lives, money and votes, that ratio has now probably led the Obama administration to conclude that this is as good as it gets.
However, maybe this does not adequately take into account the very special nature of conflict this new generation of warfare presents. Other than the nation-states' wars of the twentieth century, these new wars in Afghanistan and Iraq implicate both state and non-state actors. Unlike previous wars, combat action is not confined to troops or a well-defined battlefield. As a result, the target has changed as well as the definition of victory. As can be seen in Iraq, to a remarkable extent, civilians have been the primary target of insurgent and al Qaeda attacks. In an effort to undermine the people's trust in the capacity of the new government to preserve national security, the enemy tries to induce a state of constant fear and terror. Sadly enough, as mentioned earlier, measured under this goal, they are doing quite a good job. Each day, 14 attacks kill 11 Iraqi civilians on average. Therefore, we are far from proclaiming that either the AUMF's goal of ensuring that "the just demands of peace and security" has been met or from restoring "international peace and security" to the region, as Resolution 1441 sought to do.
Against this background, abandoning Iraq to its fate is the wrong thing to do; it would have devastating consequences not only for the Iraqi people, but for international peace and security in the long run. It will ultimately threaten the most apparent and legitimate goal for going to Iraq, the preservation of US national security. Again, the AUMF recognizes this potential domino effect in Section 3(a)(1). Yet, the Obama administration draws the wrong conclusions. The young and vulnerable Iraqi democracy, unfortunately, does not yet have the means to counter infiltration by terrorists and insurgents. Without foreign assistance, Iraq is bound to become another failed state, just as Afghanistan became in the 1990s, in the aftermath of its century-long civil war. In Afghanistan, decades of war left behind a severely wounded state without any effective governmental institutions. This lack of governmental infrastructure resulted in a power vacuum of lawlessness and chaos. This chaos benefitted the strongest and most ruthless actors, not the democratically legitimized statesmen. It was this particular constellation that helped the Taliban to come to power, allowing it to later provide terrorist groups with safe havens to plan and train for attacks against the West.
If that is not supposed to happen with Iraq, than under no circumstances should US troops leave the Iraqi people on their own. Let us not stop halfway down the road. There are achievements we should build on. Even though the democracy is struggling, at this point, at least there is a democracy in place. All we have to do to turn a ticking bomb into a potential model for the Middle East is stick patiently to the goals of the AUMF in order to ensure (self-)sustainability. As difficult as this may be and as long as it will take, it is worthwhile, since starting over in 10 or 15 years will be even more costly.
That, however, requires us to alter our perspectives on warfare. In times of asymmetric conflicts, waging war, and especially waging war successfully, which in the instant case means establishing a self-sustaining democracy capable of defending itself, is no longer only about who has the most effective military and weapons. Rather it is about protecting vulnerabilities, which is to say protecting civilians and closely coordinating the (re)building of effective institutions of good governance. It is about generating and preserving trust between the Iraqi people and their government. Yet, trust requires security, "freedom from fear," as the Preamble to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states. In this respect, the US and its allies have failed. They have failed due to a misconception of warfare. They failed to appreciate that warfare has changed; their weapons are no longer fully up to the task given by the AUMF. Peace and security in Iraq cannot be achieved solely by shooting or detaining the enemy with state-of-the-art weapons. Trust in the domestic government necessitates strong domestic institutions. This is best achieved by peacekeeping forces with an emphasis on institution building, implementing the rule of law and advocating good governance.
That is not to say that we do not need the military. Quite the contrary. The military remains a crucial factor in times of asymmetric warfare, yet with slightly modified perspectives and tasks. Therefore, it should under no circumstances leave Iraq now. The soldiers are needed to provide for a secure atmosphere in which state and institution-building efforts can take place, for domestic tranquility is the precondition for sustainable development. Thus, withdrawing from Iraq at this point is the wrong call. The international community has invested too much to stop now. In order to achieve true victory in Iraq once and for all, to turn mission impossible into mission accomplished, is to modify our strategy by intensifying peacekeeping and protection efforts.
Dominic Hoerauf is an LL.M. candidate focusing on Human Rights and the War on Terror at Columbia Law School. He holds a law degree and a Ph.D. from Humboldt University.
Suggested citation: Dominic Hoerauf, Iraq War: Mission Accomplished or Mission Impossible?, JURIST - Dateline, Dec. 13, 2011, http://jurist.org/dateline/2011/12/dominic-hoerauf-iraq-war.php.
This article was prepared for publication by Elizabeth Hand, an assistant editor for JURIST's student commentary service. Please direct any questions or comments to her at email@example.com