The outlook for Iraq seemed very different 11 years ago when I rolled from Bashir airfield, which my brigade had taken by airborne insertion, through Erbil amid cheering crowds. Moving into Kirkuk, we faced little resistance but were close enough to Iraqi soldiers that cigarettes were still warm in their ashtrays. The opposition had melted away, and we began working to transition Iraq to a post-Saddam future.
We all soon realized during that terrible summer of 2003 that there was no post-war plan. The L. Paul Bremer III administration in Baghdad was making disastrous decisions that have consequences that remain today, including the dismissal of the largely Baathist Iraqi army officer corps. These Baathists, along with Sunni tribal leaders excluded in the post-Saddam Iraq, formed an insurgency that took the life of good friends of mine and nearly destroyed the country.
Only years later did Gen. David Petraeus use political and financial concessions and more effective counterinsurgency techniques to bring Iraq back onto a more hopeful path. Even then, though, the war was known to be a strategic failure. We lost thousands of American lives, saw tens of thousands of soldiers wounded, and spent trillions of dollars. And we had removed a fierce and unpredictable adversary from Iran’s borders without achieving any concessions in return.
The violence we see today in Iraq is heartbreaking, but perhaps we as a nation can take something good from the tragedy. I think we may have finally reached a new foreign policy consensus: The U.S. military shouldn't be used for nation building.
During my deployment to Iraq it was clear that when it came down to our mission – taking an airfield, destroying a bunker, etc. – we were clearly the best in the world. Nation building, however, felt like building a castle on sand. We faced countless obstacles, including frequent troop rotations undermining our relationships with key Iraqi leaders and insufficient and ineffective project funding.
Fundamentally, the nation building mission we were handed was mission impossible. The dream of a democratic, secular government of a nation where citizens respected various religious and ethnic viewpoints and placed the rule of law above all else was our dream - not theirs. They had other dreams for their country.
The peshmerga fighters I’d smoke cigarettes with dreamed of a Kurdish homeland. Others felt secular government must come second to Islam. And in the south, Shiites saw their first opportunity to become the governing ethnic group of the nation. Some feared a darker future; when we raided a Turkmen’s home and found RPGs, he said he simply needed them to protect himself in the coming civil war. Our dream for Iraq failed because it wasn’t the Iraqi peoples' shared dream.
We must move past the blame game that has dominated the national conversation about Iraq for the past decade and find a bipartisan consensus against launching such a war ever again. I have been spending a lot of time over the past few months talking with voters in my state legislative district, and I haven’t met a Republican or a Democrat who thinks we should put U.S. forces in the war raging across the Middle East.
We now know that even the best military can’t import a dream of a nation foreign and irrelevant to a vastly different culture where there are deep fractures among the people themselves. This is a lesson we should have learned after Vietnam, but now we have two generations of Americans who have lost lives and limbs due to ill-informed decisions made by what should be a discredited foreign policy elite in Washington, D.C.
I pray that the people of Iraq find a way out of this civil war soon, but I expect that they will have do to so largely on their own. If you think we should keep out of Iraq's civil war, I suggest you let your U.S. senators and U.S. representative know you expect them to speak up and make our voices heard.