The Magazine

As We Stand Down, Can They Stand Up?

Iraq still needs close attention from the United States.

Nov 16, 2009, Vol. 15, No. 09 • By MAX BOOT
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Baghdad

One way to chart the recent course of Iraq's history is by the vehicles that American soldiers drive. When I first came here in the summer of 2003, I remember riding around in open-top, unarmored Humvees. By 2004, a spate of IEDs had made it necessary to move to up-armored Humvees, followed a few years later by heavier MRAP (Mine Resistant Ambush Protected) vehicles that look as if they wandered off the set of a Star Wars movie. When last here in 2008, I went everywhere in a hulking MRAP.

Imagine my surprise, then, to find myself being driven in late October from Camp Victory, the main U.S. base on the outskirts of Baghdad, into the center of town along Route Irish, once notorious as the world's most dangerous road, in a lightly armored Chevrolet Suburban that could not withstand a roadside bomb. In Nasiriyah, a town in southern Iraq that was a major focus of resistance during the initial U.S. invasion in the spring of 2003, I rode into the town center without body armor in an SUV driven by the local police chief.

Clearly, despite the headlines about bombings in Baghdad, the situation has improved immeasurably, even if the war is not yet over. U.S. soldiers are still engaged in combat in rural areas alongside the Iraqis. U.S. Special Operations Forces are still carrying out nightly raids on terrorist leaders, though only after they have obtained arrest warrants from an Iraqi judge. That's not something they had to worry about in the past. Nor did they have to turn over suspected terrorists to the Iraqi legal system. Some of the commandos grumble that Iraqi justice is often a revolving door with culprits captured one week released the next, but they no longer have any choice but to work through the local system. The two U.S. detention facilities, Camp Bucca and Camp Cropper, are closing and their detainees are being released or transferred to Iraqi custody.

This is an indication of how things have changed since June 30 when under the U.S.-Iraq security agreement most (though not all) U.S. troops had to pull out of 27 major urban areas. In Baghdad, for instance, the number of Joint Security Stations where U.S. troops are present has declined from 200 to 15. The Americans are now required to secure Iraqi permission when they venture off-base in most instances, and logistics convoys run only at night to maintain as low a profile as possible. The chief U.S. role in many parts of the country is to provide the "enablers" that Iraqi forces lack, such as personnel skilled in bomb disposal, intelligence, reconnaissance, route clearance, and aviation.

Notwithstanding the diminished American role, which occasioned some initial confusion on both sides, violence has not risen since June 30. In many areas attacks are actually lower today, down to levels not seen since 2003. Only 9 Americans died in combat in October--still 9 too many but a far cry from the grisly totals of years past. In all, 285 people were killed in October in political violence across Iraq, a 93 percent reduction from three years ago. (There were 4,100 fatalities in October 2006, according to data provided to me by the U.S. military headquarters.) When attacks do occur they do not spur revenge killings as in the past. Baghdad is now full of life and electricity--literally. The streets are lit up at night. Stores are open, including hundreds of stores selling liquor, and the streets are full of traffic.

In and around the Green Zone (now protected by Iraqis in cooperation with Triple Canopy security contractors), the democratic process is functioning. In their typically protracted and Byzantine fashion, politicians are hashing out the terms of the next parliamentary election in January, which is widely expected to continue the trend of this year's provincial elections which saw power flowing away from Islamist parties and toward more secular and nationalist candidates.

Those who look at Afghanistan and shake their heads in despair should pay attention. The situation in Iraq was far worse in 2006-07 than in Afghanistan today, with far more people getting killed as sectarian groups were being drawn into a full-blown civil war. Two years later, those days seem like a nightmare from which Iraqis have mercifully awoken.