Iraq veterans at Stanford reflect on U.S. withdrawal
On Dec.15, the United States officially ended the Iraq War, withdrawing the last U.S. forces over the Kuwaiti border. At the peak of the U.S. engagement, 170,000 U.S. troops were stationed in Iraq; now, only 157 soldiers and a small number of Marines remain.
The exit, after over eight and a half years of engagement, left 4,485 American service members dead, according to the New York Times.
As the future of Iraq hangs in the balance, Stanford service members reflected on the Iraq withdrawal.
Corporal Gavriel Jacobs J.D. ’13 served two combat tours in Iraq as a tank crewman. On his second tour in 2007, he was wounded by an IED ambush.
“Success in Iraq is not something you can put a price tag on,” Jacobs said. “I feel that we have done a disservice, by pulling out as fast as we have, to the effort that we have all put in.”
“We put so much time, energy and blood into that country,” he added. “You really want it to be successful; you want all the things you did to be worth something, to have a happy ending.”
At the same time, “if the Iraqis tell us they want us to leave, there may only be so much we can do,” he said.
The departure came much later than the Bush Administration publicly predicted. As BBC News reported in 2003, former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld said combat operation in Iraq “could last six days, six weeks. I doubt six months.”
“The fundamental mistake was not understanding how significant a political disruption removing that regime was,” said Colonel Charlie Miller, visiting fellow at the Center for International Security and Cooperation (CISAC), who served two tours in Iraq and was White House director for Iraq.
“I am not sure we had a good grasp on how long it would take them to work through the political system,” he said.
The current Iraqi government is based on a fragile power-sharing agreement, and Miller hopes for a “continued balance of power among the different sects and ethnicities.”
This setup was tested just a day after U.S. troops left Iraq. On Dec. 19, Iraq’s Higher Judicial Council issued an arrest warrant for Vice President Tariq al-Hashimi, the highest-ranking Sunni official in Iraq, for organizing hit squads and bombings. He promptly accused Shia Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki of trumping up the charges and then fled to Kurdistan, where he resides as of Jan. 2.
Despite political complications, some veterans believe the Iraqi army will be able to support a stable government.
Sergeant Chris Clark ’12 served two tours in Iraq ending in 2007 as a member of the Marine Corps Reconnaissance Unit.
In 2005, the Iraqi army “couldn’t conduct the most basic military operations let alone be able to provide security at any reasonable level for the entire country,” Clark said. By 2007, “they had vastly improved in their capabilities.”
Given the progress that he saw in two years, Clark is willing to “defer to the military leadership’s opinion that Iraq is capable of providing their own security.”
Navy Lieutenant Ian Aucoin J.D. ’14 goes further, suggesting that the U.S. military’s withdrawal is necessary to speed up the improvement in the Iraqi military’s capabilities.
Aucoin served as a combat engineer in Iraq from 2008 to 2009. He was in Iraq when he heard about the full details of the exit plan in 2008.
“My initial reaction was that we had hit a plateau in what we were able to do over there in terms of establishing security, and it was time to turn things over to the Iraqi government,” he said.
“As long as American forces are still there and [Iraqis] are relying on them for not just military tactical aid but for logistical aid…there is not as much incentive to develop those resources and capabilities on [their] own,” he added.
Captain Anne Hsieh J.D. ’12, who joined the army in 2001 and was deployed to Iraq from 2005 to 2006, expressed concerns that progress gained in Iraq could be “easily erased.”
“Most of us who’ve been out there, we try to think in terms of what it means for the Iraqis; and I’m really not sure what it’s going to look like without a U.S. presence,” Hsieh said.
The fear of regression cuts deeply because of the many sacrifices given to get Iraq to this point.
“I don’t think the Iraqi people have a strong sense of confidence that in the future the government will be able to survive different political and security challenges,” said Marine Captain Gabriel Ledeen J.D. ’12, who served two tours in Iraq between 2006 and 2008.
Despite his fears, Ledeen is optimistic.
“Under Saddam [Hussein] they didn’t have a chance for the future, they knew that the future would be just as miserable as the present,” he said. “There was not hope that they could have an impact on their children’s lives, and now they have the opportunity. So I would hope that if things start to slide back, the Iraqi people would stand up and not let that happen.”
The possibility for a better future for Iraqis is what many veterans at Stanford consider the legacy of U.S. troops in Iraq.
“The memories of those we have lost echoes with every vote that is cast, every decision made by political deliberation and every child who grows up freer than their parents,” wrote Sergeant William Treseder ’12, a U.S. Marine Corps Iraq and Afghanistan veteran, in an email to The Daily.
Ledeen described how on his second deployment from 2007 to 2008, his unit worked with Iraqis who led a project that reopened the market center of a town called Al-Karmah.
“All of a sudden, this was an area that was functioning again,” Ledeen said. “They knew how to live, how to do their stuff – they just needed a place to do it and the security…[so] they could bring in crops from the field without being shot at or without someone from al-Qaeda in Iraq cutting off their hands because they were selling cucumbers and tomatoes.”
Iraq also has resources that may provide an economic lifeline.
“Iraqis are going to have sufficient revenue from their oil [fields]…as they develop those and the infrastructure to better extract [oil] and export [it],” Miller said. “They are going to have plenty of money to pour into their public services and people.”
This independence could come at a cost for the United States, as Colonel Joe Felter Ph.D. ’05, a senior research fellow at CISAC who served in both Iraq and Afghanistan, argued.
“Prime Minster al-Maliki has domestic constituent interests that are not perfectly aligned with ours,” he said. “As we leave, you are going to see they are going to make decisions based on their national interests and domestic politics.”
Yet Marine Corps Captain Sam Jacobson J.D. ’14, called the focus on the withdrawal itself “misguided.”
“The military troops are leaving, but it is not the end by any means,” he said. “It is important for us to remember that on Jan. 1, Iraqis will be dying…We especially need to remember [that] the war continues, not for us but for somebody.”
“The war goes on in other ways, and we need to be aware of this,” he added. “That is what it means to be engaged citizens in a participatory democracy.”