WASHINGTON — The new headquarters of the United States Institute for Peace occupies a magnificent site on the National Mall just around the corner from the State Department and within sight of the Lincoln Memorial.
But a visitor yesterday was politely turned away because the Moshe Safdie-designed building isn’t quite finished and the institute won’t open to the public until October, apparently a victim of Congressional budget squabbles. The greater irony is that this city, which is the capital of the world in so many positive respects, is also the world capital of war. While the U.S. Congress may have trouble funding the completion of its own institute dedicated to peacemaking, it has no trouble at all spending hundreds of billions of dollars on America’s two never-ending wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
We are within months of being able to close one of those sad chapters in our nation’s history.
The United States is scheduled to withdraw its final 46,000 troops from Iraq by the end of this year. We must not miss the opportunity. It’s a war that did not need to be fought, and it is also a war whose many future pitfalls were clearly forecast in the months and weeks leading up to the March 2003 invasion. And those pitfalls are on glaring display in Iraq today: rampant sectarianism, rising Iranian influence over the Iraqi government, intense hatred of the United States as an occupying force, and an Iraqi democracy that is as tenuous as any in the region.
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Almost nine years have gone by since the start of the Iraq War and the trail of death, destruction and vast expenditure is tragically long. American forces have lost 4,474 soldiers, of whom 1,287 were younger than 22. More than 32,000 U.S. troops have been wounded, many grievously. Thousands more carry the psychological scars of this war, and most will carry them for as long as they live.
June was the deadliest month of 2011 with 15 fatalities, and it was the worst month for the United States in two years, since June 2009. We’ve asked the young men and women of our all-volunteer military to do the unthinkable — to go back to Iraq, or Afghanistan, on one combat duty tour after another, sometimes four and five times. It’s an outrage so profound there simply are no words for it. And then, of course, there’s the cost: nearly one trillion dollars in direct expenditures in Iraq alone. That, too, is an outrage for an America ravaged by unemployment and facing enormous unmet infrastructure needs.
But our suffering pales in comparison to what the people of Iraq have had to endure. Iraqi civilian casualties totaled 114,939 through May of this year, according to the Brookings Institution Iraq Index. Two weeks ago, a series of 42 attacks across Iraq killed 90 people and wounded 315, both civilians and Iraqi security forces — the deadliest day of 2011. The attacks included suicide bombs, car explosions and gunfire, and took place from northern Iraq to the south in what appeared to be well-coordinated attacks. And this past Sunday, a suicide bomber blew himself up in a Sunni mosque in Baghdad, killing at least 28 people and wounding dozens more.
This has been a vicious, bloody war with no mercy shown even to the civilian population. Shiite militants have been linked recently to the killing of U.S. soldiers, and Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia (AQM) is behind other attacks on both civilians and military forces. The AQM spokesman, Abu Muhammad al-Adnani, was quoted in The New York Times as saying, “We have men who have divorced themselves from life and love death more than you love life, and killing is one of their wishes.”
If that weren’t sad testimony enough on the futility of the Iraq War, the country’s prime minister, Nuri Kamal al-Maliki, has shown his true colors as no friend of the United States. Maliki is backing Syria in its brutal, bloody repression of that country’s freedom movement while America and many other nations have called for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to step down.
In this, of course, Maliki is doing what his most important ally, Iran, directs him to do. Shiite Iran — and the Shiite majority in Iraq — want the ruling Shiite minority in Syria to continue their 40-year-long autocratic rule over the Sunni majority population. What a cruel but entirely predictable irony that Iraq’s leader should side with a Saddam Hussein-like dictator in a neighboring state after the enormous suffering this war has imposed on so many in Iraq, in America and in other countries.
U.S. military forces in Iraq reached their peak strength in October 2007 at 171,000. Today, there are fewer than 50,000, and none has an active combat assignment. Iraqi security forces have grown from less than 10,000 in the spring of 2003 after the U.S. invasion to more than 650,000 today. Ready or not, it is time for America to lay this burden down and bring our troops home.
The U.S. government has said it will do just that unless the Iraqi government asks America to stay. After a long period of silence on the subject, the Maliki government recently said it would negotiate about retaining some U.S. troops beyond the December deadline. U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta warned in early July that weapons supplied by Iran to Shiite militia in Iraq posed “a tremendous concern” for the United States — a position echoed by the American ambassador to Iraq and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. We would be fools to take the bait.
The Iraq War was a staggering error of judgment on the part of the Bush administration and its Congressional supporters. It has achieved little. Prolonging it will achieve nothing. The successful conclusion of the war in Libya has shown us that there is an alternative to unilateral military intervention. If the United States is really serious about the stated mission of the Institute for Peace, which is to increase the nation’s capacity to manage international conflict without violence, let’s celebrate the public opening of this gleaming new edifice by announcing the final and irretrievable withdrawal of all United States military forces from Iraq. Let’s get our troops home for Christmas.
Philip Balboni is Chief Executive Officer and Co-Founder of GlobalPost. He writes a column each Tuesday.