This Veteran's Day essay on the importance of America's military mission in Iraq was written by Joe Roche, who completed two tours of duty with the U.S. Army in Iraq. Read more of Joe's writing honoring American soldiers here.
On this Veteran's Day, as we near the end of the mission in Iraq in just a couple more months, it is good to look back on the last decade since September 11th, 2001 and how Iraq shaped our response. We constantly hear it was the "wrong war" at the "wrong time," in response to which many veterans of Iraq wonder if it was worth it.
Our leaders fail to recognize the central importance of Iraq because of the many challenges they face, such as economically. This does not mean it wasn't important; it just means our leaders are not speaking to this for political reasons, for which they deny a noble event. I'd like to step back and clarify America's decade of success in Iraq because it is important, and we should be very proud. It was the most important part of the response to 9/11.
Iraq always was the key to success in any response to Middle East terrorism, even before 9/11, regardless of the issue of weapons of mass destruction. It is Arab, surrounded by several of the most important countries in the region, key to all of the major challenges involving the Saudis, Egyptians, Syrians and others. Never could a response to 9/11 have worked if we had just stopped with Afghanistan.
Afghanistan is not Arab, it is remote; fighting there makes the U.S. vulnerable to Russian manipulations, while success is always impossible because of Pakistan's existence, Indo-Pakistani tensions, Russian manipulations, and because the threat of Islamic terrorism is actually not Afghan, but instead Arab and North African. Afghanistan alone would have meant an aborted effort to redress 9/11. Iraq was the key.
America's leadership and sacrifice in Iraq has been supreme and noble. Combining it with Afghanistan, America's direct response to 9/11 is the liberation of over 50 million people from tyranny. Capturing Saddam Hussein threw into doubt the legitimacy of all tyrants in the Arab world. This is the starting point for today's Arab Spring in which Arab and African tyrants have lost legitimacy and are under siege.
It was critically important that we also expand our operations worldwide, to include the Philippines, Africa and elsewhere. The threat was global and had to be fought that way. Overlooked by many today, our response to 9/11 resulted in the downfall of Charles Taylor and Foday Sanko's horrendous tyrannical terrorism in West Africa. Many countries in that region now live in peace because of this. Iraq made this globalization possible, not Afghanistan.
Operationally, we could not expand operations on this level via Afghanistan because of the extreme challenge of supplying and maintaining our forces there, which we are experiencing now. Afghanistan is a limiting engagement. Iraq, in contrast, enabled a global operation because its location forced us to use logistical means from several different directions, while encouraging more global missions. Iraq compelled global operations.
This was vital because of the mistake of the 1990s in which over 5,000 Al Qaeda terrorists went global from Bosnia, which is what facilitated Osama Bin Laden's takeover of the group. We ignored the threat then because of our effort to defend Bosnia. Bosnia in the 1990s, however, was where all of the outrages we witnessed in Iraq and Afghanistan, such as beheadings, first began through Al Qaeda. After 9/11 it was clear that the Bosnian global jihad had to be shut down, especially after Al Qaeda's attacks in Madrid, London and elsewhere were led by Bosnian jihad veterans. Thousands of terrorists had fanned out globally because of Bosnia.
Only America could lead this response. No other country was able to make the leap from Bosnia's mistakes to confronting Middle East terrorism, certainly not Europe. Notably, even after we had toppled the Taliban and chased Al Qaeda out of Afghanistan by 2002, the Saudis were still kicking us out and the rest of the Arab world was still betting on the success of Jihadism defeating America. Saddam's defiance of the United Nations and intimidation of the Arab world was impossible to ignore no matter what happened in Afghanistan.
The Russians, always undermining NATO operations in Afghanistan, had no such ability to manipulate us over Iraq. When our focus was on Iraq, the U.S. led the ultimate expansion of NATO into the former Soviet Union; successfully promoted pro-Western revolutions in other former Soviet territories; established bases throughout Central Asia; and even won Russia's reluctant acceptance of missile defenses in Central Europe. When our focus shifted to Afghanistan, all this went into reverse and the West has been forced to concede to Russian aggression against Georgia, for example. We could fight in Iraq regardless of Russian manipulations, and when we were focused on Iraq, Russia was held back in Georgia. Iraq demonstrated American strength, resolve and leadership, while enhancing global operations. Afghanistan, in contrast, highlights our limits while empowering Russian manipulations over NATO. We simply can't win in Afghanistan without winning in Pakistan, and that means destroying nuclear-armed Pakistan, which would in turn convulse India, Russia and China. Iraq, in contrast, freed up American resolve to take on Islamic terrorism worldwide while keeping Russia in check and catapulting the Arabs into working with us. Notably, after we went into Iraq, the Saudis, Egyptians, Qaddafi, all the tyrants of the world, including the Russians and Chinese, suddenly changed their tune and started courting us, going along with American interests. This was why we were able to work so closely and effectively with the intelligence agencies of so many previously-hostile nations.
Al Qaeda is Salafist, Wahhabist, North African, Arab, including Palestinian, Jordanian, Egyptian, Libyan, supported by Iran, ...but notably not really Afghan. This is another reason why just fighting in Afghanistan alone would never have worked; Afghanistan without Iraq would have proved inconsequential in response to 9/11.
When we went into Iraq, we found a nightmare which included terrorist training camps such as Salman Pak near Baghdad, where international Jihadists were even training on a plane. Had we failed to bring down Saddam, Iraq would have emerged to dominate the Middle East in the wake of American failure in Afghanistan after 9/11, compelling the Saudis and others to break with the US, Qaddafi would have weaponized Libya with nukes thus holding Europe hostage, and Al Qaeda would have been freed to take the jihadist struggle to a whole new dangerous level. Would Saddam have then nuclearized Iraq? His own words would seem to confirm this. After all, the US would have been routed into retreat, just as Bin Laden had planned.
It has been a long hard journey to reverse the errors of Bosnia, but from 9/11's tragedies, we took the lead and did the impossible. American soldiers worked hard to succeed in Iraq even when many American political leaders said we had failed. This success was combined with global operations, including 4,000 soldiers in South America, and thousands of CIA-led rendition missions capturing would-be terrorists in remote foreign places. Carrying on the legacy of America leading the liberation of Germany, Japan, Italy, Eastern Europe and elsewhere, we have again done this over the past decade. Bin Laden's plans were thwarted because of Operation Iraqi Freedom, and the region was rescued from a jihadist takeover.
So on this Veteran's Day, ten years since 9/11, on the verge of completing our mission in Iraq, take note how much everyone, the world included, owe to the American soldier. The day will come when our present political inhibitions will cease blinding us from this noble victory.
Our success in Iraq, from which the entire response to 9/11 depended, from which Bosnia's errors have been redressed, to which the present is experiencing a new birth of freedom in the Arab Spring, for which our world has much hope for the future, is because of the American soldier.
by Joe Roche