It is taken for granted by many Canadians that the Iraq war has been a failure. But many of those who believe this seem to have stopped their mental clocks in 2006 at the height of the insurgency, when dozens of deaths by ambush and roadside bombs were a daily occurrence. Over the last year, during the "surge" that brought more U.S. troops to Iraq, remarkable gains have taken place. On this, the fifth anniversary of the 2003 invasion, it's only right that we enumerate the lessons learned.
To be sure, American civilian war planners made many mistakes following the initial, successful invasion. Chief among these was the decision to overrule senior generals' estimates that at least 400,000 troops would be needed to maintain the peace in the months immediately following the liberation. When General Eric Shinseki, then the Army chief of staff, proposed sending nearly half a million soldiers, his political masters -- notably defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld and deputy secretary Paul Wolfowitz -- denounced his estimate as "wildly off the mark." Instead, the decision was made to limit the deployment to fewer than 200,000, in the belief that superior equipment and technology could replace boots on the ground.
Without sufficient troops, the coalition could not secure Iraq's borders. Jihadis flowed in from Syria, Iran and Saudi Arabia; bombs and missiles followed. Jihadis also beat coalition forces to major weapons caches. There were too few coalition forces to patrol the streets, collect intelligence about terror plots, protect Iraq's civilian population and permit the resumption of normal daily life.
Attacks on essential infrastructure, such as pipelines and power plants, could not be stopped, so oil could not flow and the lights could not be kept on. That meant Iraq's government had less oil-generated income than expected and businesses -- small and large -- could not operate fully since their owners could not be guaranteed a reliable power supply.
The U.S. purging of Baathists -- the members of Saddam Hussein's old ruling party -- went too far. Reliable bureaucrats, army commanders and soldiers who knew the country were shunted to the sidelines, even though they were not Saddam loyalists. Many took up arms against the occupying army.
Young men without work were attracted to charismatic Shiite and Sunni militia leaders who offered them pay to fight the Americans. And neighbourhood leaders who could not trust coalition forces to secure their streets gravitated toward the militiamen, too.
Still, since the surge began a year ago, Iraq has changed. The overall picture that emerges is of a country that is gradually growing safer and happier. A poll done last week for American, British, German and Japanese television networks indicates 55% of Iraqis believe life is "going well," compared to just 39% last August. Most now think the 2003 invasion was a good thing, and while they are not always happy with U.S. troops, 80% are happy the Americans are there battling al-Qaeda in Iraq.
The Awakening Councils -- the anti-al-Qaeda alliances between tribal leaders, American commanders and the Iraq army -- have cut off al-Qaeda's supplies, safe houses and sources of recruits. Meanwhile, the Sons of Iraq neighbourhood patrols that pay citizens $450 a month to guard the streets around their homes and businesses have cut crime and minor acts of terror.
Oil is flowing at the rate of over two million barrels per day and the electricity is on for a nationwide average of 13 hours a day, versus just nine at the height of the insurgency.
Most important of all, deaths have dropped dramatically. Although Americans will likely suffer their 4,000th combat death this month or next, their fatal casualties have fallen from nearly 140 a month last summer to fewer than 20 a month now. Iraqi civilian deaths are down as well, from nearly 4,000 a month to under 500.
Sunnis -- the dominant sect under Saddam -- still feel victimized, and Kurds still seek their own nation carved out of Iraq, both of which are huge problems. However, in January, the Iraqi Parliament passed landmark legislation dealing with radicals from all elements who find their way into the military or civil service. This should permit the reintroduction of thousands of Sunnis into Iraq's administration and mainstream culture -- they had suffered a blanket ban under previous such laws -- and facilitate the expulsion of radical Shiites friendly to Iran and militia leaders such as Moqtada al-Sadr.
That this might have come about much sooner, say, in 2004, if the U.S. had executed the occupation better is the tragedy of Iraq. Still, Iraq is a better place now than it was under Saddam, and its future is brighter. The world has also been spared the menace of a genocidal dictator playing the world community for fools, and acting as a champion of militant Arabism and a patron to Islamist suicide bombers.