War without end

    George W. Bush declared on May 1, 2003 that “major combat operations in Iraq have ended,” an infamous boast that missed the mark by roughly seven years. And Barack Obama now declares that, by the end of this month, “our combat mission will be over in Iraq,” but we’ll see about that. It will all hinge on how one defines combat and mission.

    In all likelihood, there will be no finality to this neoconservative folly. Fifty thousand U.S. troops remain, ostensibly to “advise and assist” the Iraqi security forces that will supposedly keep the peace despite the absence of a functioning coalition government. In case you haven’t permanently tuned out Iraq, that is indeed the situation: Nearly six months after the staging of national elections, the various sectarian and religious political parties still haven’t formed a government. Meanwhile, jihadists are still killing with impunity – 61 people died in a Baghdad bombing the other day – and a former U.S. ambassador to Iraq is warning that the current instability “has the potential to re-polarize” the country.

    Which is why it strains credulity to believe that “our combat mission will be over.” After 4,400 American military deaths and the wasteful expenditure of roughly one trillion dollars, it was particularly sobering yesterday to watch Gen. Ray Odierno, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, as he laid out the loopholes on CNN.

    George W. Bush declared on May 1, 2003 that “major combat operations in Iraq have ended,” an infamous boast that missed the mark by roughly seven years. And Barack Obama now declares that, by the end of this month, “our combat mission will be over in Iraq,” but we’ll see about that. It will all hinge on how one defines combat and mission.

    In all likelihood, there will be no finality to this neoconservative folly. Fifty thousand U.S. troops remain, ostensibly to “advise and assist” the Iraqi security forces that will supposedly keep the peace despite the absence of a functioning coalition government. In case you haven’t permanently tuned out Iraq, that is indeed the situation: Nearly six months after the staging of national elections, the various sectarian and religious political parties still haven’t formed a government. Meanwhile, jihadists are still killing with impunity – 61 people died in a Baghdad bombing the other day – and a former U.S. ambassador to Iraq is warning that the current instability “has the potential to re-polarize” the country.

    Which is why it strains credulity to believe that “our combat mission will be over.” After 4,400 American military deaths and the wasteful expenditure of roughly one trillion dollars, it was particularly sobering yesterday to watch Gen. Ray Odierno, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, as he laid out the loopholes on CNN.

    Speaking from his outpost in Iraq, he said: “We now have units left behind that are organized to do advise-train-assist. But they certainly have the ability to protect themselves and if necessary to conduct op – combat operations, if it was required.”

    Translation: If the bad guys pull an ambush, our troops will switch to combat mode and return fire. And to guard against further ambushes, our troops may find it necessary to engage in pro-active combat, to kill the bad guys before they kill us.

    In military terms, Odeirno’s loophole makes perfect sense. So let’s forget this notion that our combat mission is over. The fog of war will require more combat, however fungible the definition might be.

    But wait, aren’t these 50,000 troops – formally known as “U.S. Advise and Assist Brigades” – due to come home at the end of 2011 anyway? So the end is truly in sight, yes?

    Well, not necessarily. A top Iraqi military official is publicly insisting that “the U.S. Army must stay until the Iraqi army is fully ready in 2020,” a remark that prompted CNN to ask Odeirno this question yesterday: “Can you foresee a scenario like that, that there would be some U.S. military presence, albeit much smaller, at 2020?”

    Odeirno’s initial response: “Well, I think – I don’t know.”

    As the U.S. troops in Vietnam used to say to each other: There it is.

    “I don’t know” is a loophole big enough to accommodate a C-17 Globemaster III military transport plane loaded with M-1 tanks. And Odeirno’s fuller response doesn’t sound much better: “Well, I think – I don’t know. I – I think it depends on what kind of presence you’re talking about. If the government of Iraq requests some technical assistance in fielding, systems that allow them to protect themselves, some external threats, we could be here…That continues to help them to develop their infrastructure and security architecture. And if that’s what we’re talking about, potentially, we could be there beyond 2011.”

    Granted, President Obama has no choice but to make the best of Bush’s elective war. But when Obama delivers his next speech on Iraq (slated for later this week), he’d be wise not to overly imply that the last drop of American blood has been shed. None of us really believes that, anyway. Foreign policy analyst and ex-U.S. Army colonel Andrew Bacevich probably said it best the other day: “For the rest of us to pretend that this unnecessary and ill-advised war has ended would only add one more lie to the pile that is already too large.”

    Which reminds me: If you happen to retain the habit of holding a print newspaper in your hands, turn to page A8 in today’s New York Times. Take a look at the four- paragraph story tucked into the bottom right corner. Apparently we now have a new casualty category; let’s call it Deaths in the Post-Combat Era.

    The buried story says, “An American soldier was killed in Iraq’s southernmost province on Sunday, marking the first American fatality since the military declared last week that the last combat unit had been pulled out of the country…Sunday’s death underscores the semantic difficulties in describing precisely what their mission will represent and what roles they will be engaged in.”

    There it is. As John Kerry famously remarked about Vietnam, “How do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?”

    Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

    It will take 126,000 members this year for great news and programs to thrive. Help us get to 100% of the goal.