‘It’s harder to end a war than be­gin one’

The Star Late Edition - - INSIDE - GREG JAFFE

IN FE­BRU­ARY 2009, less than two months af­ter he took of­fice, Pres­i­dent Barack Obama had flown to Camp Le­je­une, North Carolina, and laid out his plan for end­ing the war in Iraq. He stood sur­rounded by cam­ou­flage-clad Marines, many of whom were days away from be­ing shipped off to Iraq or Afghanistan.

“Next month will mark the sixth an­niver­sary of the war in Iraq,” Obama told the troops. “By any mea­sure, this has al­ready been a long war.”

Obama rose to na­tional promi­nence in 2002 on the eve of the Iraq in­va­sion by call­ing it a “dumb war; a rash war; a war based not on rea­son, but on pas­sion; not on prin­ci­ple, but on pol­i­tics”. His can­di­dacy hinged on his prom­ise to end it as quickly as pos­si­ble.

He was far from the first per­son to wres­tle with the ques­tion of how to bring the fight to a close. In March 2003, with troops bogged down by guer­rilla at­tacks on the way to Baghdad, then-Ma­jor Gen­eral David Pe­traeus turned to a re­porter and ut­tered one of the most pre­scient sen­tences of the Iraq war: “Tell me how this ends.”

Pres­i­dent Ge­orge W Bush thought he had his an­swer – the “Mis­sion Ac­com­plished” mo­ment – on the air­craft car­rier USS Abra­ham Lin­coln two months later, shortly af­ter the fall of Sad­dam Hus­sein. “Be­cause of you, our na­tion is more se­cure,” he told the sailors. “Be­cause of you, the tyrant has fallen, and Iraq is free.” But the war would con­sume Bush for the re­main­der of his pres­i­dency.

Obama fol­lowed Bush into the White House de­ter­mined not to let his pres­i­dency be de­fined by war – es­pe­cially not the one in Iraq, which had cost more than 4000 Amer­i­can lives and tens of thou­sands of Iraqi lives, when he took of­fice.

His plans to end the con­flict were un­done by Iraq’s poi­sonous sec­tar­ian pol­i­tics, Ira­nian med­dling, his own mis­takes and the civil war in Syria. Like Pe­traeus, he strug­gled to an­swer that most fun­da­men­tal ques­tion: “Tell me how this ends.”

At Camp Le­je­une, Obama sketched out one an­swer, telling the Marines they had “fought against tyranny and dis­or­der”. They had bled for their “best friends and for un­known Iraqis”. They had “served with hon­our”.

But they could not do the job of diplo­mats and civil­ian ad­vis­ers who would stay be­hind af­ter the troops came home to help the Iraqis forge a last­ing peace. “We’ll help Iraqis strengthen in­sti­tu­tions that are just, rep­re­sen­ta­tive and ac­count­able,” Obama promised. “We’ll build new ties of trade and com­merce, cul­ture and ed­u­ca­tion, that un­leash the po­ten­tial of the Iraqi peo­ple.”

But the fi­nal hours of the Amer­i­can oc­cu­pa­tion sug­gested a very dif­fer­ent end.

We ex­pect our wars to end in iconic mo­ments. Gen­eral Robert E Lee’s sur­ren­der at Ap­po­mat­tox in 1865; the 1945 Life mag­a­zine photo of a sailor plant­ing a kiss on an un­sus­pect­ing woman in Times Square; a he­li­copter evac­u­at­ing US per­son­nel in Saigon in 1975.

“It’s harder to end a war than be­gin one,” Obama told troops at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, on De­cem­ber 14, 2011. He was right in a way he never an­tic­i­pated.

The next day the US mil­i­tary’s top brass gath­ered at Baghdad In­ter­na­tional Air­port to mark what was sup­posed to be the end of the war. Then-De­fence Sec­re­tary Leon Panetta of­fered the usual praise for the troops. Gen­eral Lloyd Austin, who pressed to keep 15 000 Amer­i­can troops in the coun­try, gave a half-hearted en­dorse­ment to the pro­ceed­ings, pro­nounc­ing Iraq a “rel­a­tively peace­ful en­vi­ron­ment”.

The Iraqis of­fered up the cer­e­mony’s most pow­er­ful state­ment by re­fus­ing at the last minute to at­tend. Just be­fore the cer­e­mony was to start, an Amer­i­can sol­dier was dis­patched to snatch the plac­ards re­serv­ing seats in the front row for then-Iraqi Prime Min­is­ter Nouri al-Ma­liki and the top mem­bers of his cabi­net.

Two days later, the last US troops gath­ered at Con­tin­gency Op­er­at­ing Base Adder for the fi­nal con­voy out of Iraq. At its peak, the base held more than 12000 Amer­i­can troops and con­trac­tors, a Taco Bell, a movie the­atre and six bus routes.

The Amer­i­cans were leav­ing be­hind 500 pick­ups, buses and cars in the base mo­tor pool, with the keys on the dash­boards. “This place is go­ing to be like Black Fri­day at Wal­mart when we leave,” joked an Iraqi Amer­i­can in­ter­preter.

Iraq’s prob­lems were ev­i­dent, even to a ca­sual ob­server. A six-man Iraqi band, dressed in dirty blue uni­forms, played a ragged march­ing song on dented trum­pets and trom­bones as the Amer­i­cans and Iraqis signed the fi­nal pa­per­work hand­ing over the fa­cil­ity, which the Iraqis had re­named Imam Ali Air Base. Its only plane was a rusty, white pas­sen­ger air­craft with no land­ing gear and a bro­ken pro­pel­ler.

The US mil­i­tary flew in a gag­gle of tele­vi­sion re­porters a few hours be­fore the fi­nal con­voy left for Kuwait. Ger­aldo Rivera, the Fox News per­son­al­ity, posed for pic­tures with the Amer­i­can sol­diers. Some troops cooked ham­burg­ers and hot dogs on a grill fash­ioned out of a steel bar­rel.

The Amer­i­cans fi­nally left the base about 3am, rolling out un­der the cover of dark­ness as drones and at­tack he­li­copters cir­cled pro­tec­tively over­head.

The day af­ter the Amer­i­cans had cleared the bor­der, Ma­liki’s Shia-dom­i­nated govern­ment is­sued an ar­rest war­rant for Iraq’s Sunni vice-pres­i­dent, be­gin­ning a sec­tar­ian cleans­ing that would tear the coun­try apart. In 2014, when the Iraqi army col­lapsed and the Is­lamic State (IS) swept through Iraq’s ma­jor­ity Sunni prov­inces, the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion blamed Ma­liki for gut­ting the govern­ment and the mil­i­tary. Repub­li­cans blamed Obama for not press­ing harder to keep an Amer­i­can force in the coun­try. Se­nior mil­i­tary of­fi­cials – many of whom said they be­lieved that they had sal­vaged some­thing close to vic­tory by 2011 – blamed the po­lit­i­cal lead­er­ship in Wash­ing­ton for let­ting things spi­ral out of con­trol in Iraq af­ter the last troops left.

Obama re­sponded to the IS ad­vance by send­ing in fighter jets, bombers and 475 mil­i­tary ad­vis­ers. To­day, the num­ber of US troops in Iraq is 5 000, and it is al­most cer­tain to grow. As Obama’s pres­i­dency drew to a close, he still strug­gled to de­fine vic­tory in a place like Iraq. In De­cem­ber 2015, af­ter ter­ror­ist at­tacks in Paris and San Bernardino, Cal­i­for­nia, Obama took an­other cut at it in a prime-time Oval Of­fice ad­dress.

Vic­tory was not get­ting sucked back into a “long and costly ground war in Iraq or Syria”, he said. “That’s what groups like ISIL want,” he said, us­ing an­other name for the IS. It had less to do with what ac­tu­ally hap­pened on the ground in Iraq and Syria than how Amer­i­cans re­acted at home.

In­stead of an­swer­ing Pe­traeus’s ques­tion, Obama sought to flip it.

“Let’s make sure we never for­get what makes us ex­cep­tional,” he said from the White House as he pre­pared to en­ter the fi­nal year of his pres­i­dency. “Let’s not for­get that free­dom is more pow­er­ful than fear.”


Pres­i­dent Barack Obama shoots clay tar­gets on the range at Camp David in Au­gust 2012. The White House re­leased a photo of Obama fir­ing a gun, two days be­fore he headed to Min­nesota to dis­cuss gun con­trol.

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