The president will be careful to say that the transition from “Operation Iraqi Freedom” to “Operation New Dawn” does not mean “Mission Accomplished.” But his speech is still likely to mask, from Americans, the deeper reality of what is happening in Iraq. If there is indeed a new Iraq growing up—and that idea by itself is still wishful thinking—it is growing up around the U.S. presence. The new Iraq will remain as dependent on the U.S. military as a severely disabled child.
Wikileaks’ presentation of the material is heavy handed at times (to set the tone, they start off with a George Orwell quote). But is it actually wrong to call the killings indiscriminate? At this point, that’s still a good question. Mediaite rightly points out that there is clearly some sort of military protocol that’s being followed, what with the shooter identifying weapons and asking for permission to fire. That could make this incident quite different from the other civilian death cover-up recently uncovered in Afghanistan, in which U.S. forces initially blamed the deaths of five civilians on honor killings. But Mediaite doesn’t address whether that protocol was followed correctly, or whether the protocol itself adheres to the letter of the law. For that, Wikileaks’ expanded reporting may have some answers; they’ve also published the military’s classified Rules of Engagement for 2006, 2007 and 2008, covering the before, during, and after periods around the killings. More than the emotional reaction to the callousness seen in the video—which is unquestionably jarring—an in-depth reading of the laws should reveal how much of an impact the Wikileaks report will (or should) have.
One of the greatest disservices of “The Hurt Locker” is the impression that soldiers in Iraq were masters of their destinies. If they snipped the right wire, made the right shot, cleared the right room, they would stay alive. In fact, the opposite was true. Certainly there were firefights, but the vast majority of U.S. deaths were from I.E.D.’s.
This is what was so absolutely terrifying about the war. A faceless enemy was catastrophically destroying U.S. vehicles every day with I.E.D.’s (and I can assure you the enemy did not stand in the open, as per several scenes in the movie). Regardless of your training, if you were in that vehicle when the button got pressed, you were dead.
It has to be said and it should be understood—now, almost seven hellish years later—that something that looks mighty like democracy is emerging in Iraq. And while it may not be a beacon of inspiration to the region, it most certainly is a watershed event that could come to represent a whole new era in the history of the massively undemocratic Middle East.
The elections to be held in Iraq on March 7 feature 6,100 parliamentary candidates from all of the country’s major sects and many different parties. They have wildly conflicting interests and ambitions. Yet in the past couple of years, these politicians have come to see themselves as part of the same club, where hardball political debate has supplanted civil war and legislation is hammered out, however slowly and painfully, through compromises—not dictatorial decrees or, for that matter, the executive fiats of U.S. occupiers. Although protected, encouraged, and sometimes tutored by Washington, Iraq’s political class is now shaping its own system—what Gen. David Petraeus calls “Iraqracy.” With luck, the politics will bolster the institutions through which true democracy thrives.
Remember Iraq? For months our attention has been focused on Afghanistan, and you can be sure that the surge will be covered exhaustively as it unfolds in 2010. But the coming year could be even more pivotal in Iraq. The country will hold elections in March to determine its political future. Months of parliamentary horse trading will likely ensue, which could provoke a return to violence. The United States still has 120,000 troops stationed in Iraq, and all combat forces are scheduled to leave by August, further testing the country’s ability to handle its own security. How we draw down in Iraq is just as critical as how we ramp up in Afghanistan: If handled badly, this withdrawal could be a disaster. Handled well, it could leave behind a significant success.