Tonight, President Barack Obama announced that combat operations in Iraq have ended for the United States, to which I say, as a veteran of the conflict, it's about time.
I was happy to hear the President acknowledge that through the hard work of America's military men and women, our nation succeeded in its missions, affording Iraq the opportunity to pursue a prosperous future. The President was also clear to note that the American commitment will continue in a variety of ways.
When I was called to serve in Iraq in 2003, we were told that our mission was regime change in an effort to bring stability to a country ruled by a maniacal tyrant. With Saddam Hussein deposed, tried, and executed; his sons killed in battle; al-Qaeda in Iraq marginalized; and a new constitution in place, what more do American combat forces really have to offer? In my view, we have more than kept our promise to the people of Iraq. Now it's their turn.
While in Iraq, I remember speaking with a middle-aged Iraqi businessman who was very candid about the Coalition mission in Iraq. The man told me that he and his family were eternally grateful for freeing Iraq from Saddam. However, he cautioned that Iraqis were a proud people who yearned to make decisions for themselves--after all, prior to Hussein seizing power, the secular nation had capably taken care of its affairs. He warned that many would grow weary of a foreign presence in their country.
Unfortunately, the imminent power vacuum in Iraq was conducive to other outside entities influencing the course of Iraq. Al-Qaeda in Iraq and Iranian influences attempted to subvert American and Iraqi efforts, leading to a spike in violence. Thankfully, American military leaders--including President George W. Bush--had the foresight to retake control of the situation. Through the troop surge, Iraqis were given the space to continue their business developing the country. Proud Iraqis then turned on al-Qaeda leaders after scores of brutal attacks on on their fellow countrymen, recognizing that the terrorists' empty promises were no viable way forward.
Critics have pointed to President Obama's finite deadline as a capitulation to the forces that sought to destabilize Iraq. To me, this is bunk. At some point the Iraqis need to know that America will leave them to their own devices--whatever they may be. Short of colonization (which would be a completely absurd proposition) there's no realistic way for the United States to make an open-ended commitment to Iraq. To me, the brave men and women of the U.S. military have done more than enough.
The Iraqis I know and am proud to call friends simply want what we want here in America. They want to go to work, provide for their families, and give their children better lives than they had. This is why I'm confident Iraq will succeed when left to make decisions on their own fate.
That being said, I must criticize those who view the drawdown in Iraq as a stalemate or an admission of American defeat. On a strategic level, the U.S. military accomplished its objective of regime change long ago. WMDs or no WMDs, at no time in the future will Saddam Hussein or his murdering sons usurp control of an Iraqi state now free to determine its own course. Whatever the new government becomes over the years may not be exactly what American political leaders envision, but we could never realistically have control of that outcome, as an outside player.
Of my time in Iraq and the subsequent years that some of those closest to me spent in the desert, I must say I'm proud of what we accomplished. We projected American power and succeeded in every objective with professionalism and pride. Those who made the ultimate sacrifice made it in the name of the ideals we cherish as Americans, and a grateful American nation and a grateful Iraq will never forget.
Though the President stressed that we must now focus on our nation's pressing issues, such as the economy, I was proud to hear that he also stressed a continued responsibility to prosecute the Global War on Terror (Osama Bin Laden is still at large), project American power and continue to serve the needs of our nation's veterans.
Though we have seen tremendous improvements in veterans' benefits over the last few years, ranging from advance VA appropriations, to the Post-9/11 G.I. Bill, family caregiver, and unified VA/DoD health records, much more needs to be done. The commitment to our veterans must go beyond the immediate needs. Our nation must be committed to its veterans long after the conflicts end.
We must fix the claims backlog, meet the needs of our female veterans, better serve our rural and remote veterans communities, stymie the causes of homelessness, and ensure that veterans have viable employment options after the military.
Personally, I'm eager to see what happens now that Americans have transferred authority and I have confidence that Iraq will prosper in the long run.
(Image: Then-Spc. Ryan Gallucci, alongside Moldovan soldiers, smoking a cigar the day Saddam Hussein was captured in Iraq, December 2003. Photo by Ryan Moniz.)