President Bush addressed the world May 1, 2003, from an aircraft carrier with an enormous “Mission Accomplished” banner behind him. Over the last year and a half this has become more and more of an overstatement, and since then there has been little one could call successful in our occupation of Iraq.
The spirit of accomplishment and success was reborn last weekend as 60 percent of Iraqis braved the polls to vote in the first democratic elections in decades, finally accomplishing President Bush’s goal of bringing freedom to the Middle East.
However, before anyone makes any banners it is important to remember 44 people were killed on election day in 109 separate attacks. While the bravery of the voters must be recognized, it is an extremely bad omen when people are voting to the sound of exploding shells. Also, Sunnis leaders told the minority group to boycott the election. Even with the measures taken to incorporate Sunnis into the government, Iraqi society remains deeply divided. It is clear that stability and order in Iraq are not in sight despite the successful election.
This leads to the obvious questions: When will the violence end and when can the U.S. Army leave? It remains unclear when peace will truly come to Iraq. The election turnout suggests 60 percent of the country supports a democratic government enough to risk their lives, which strips all public support from the insurgency. However, the insurgency remains stocked with people willing to die to fight not only the U.S. led occupation but also any elected government supported by the United States. Without the occupation, the newly born democracy will quickly collapse into anarchy or despotism.
Our soldiers simply cannot leave until the Iraqi government is stable and strong enough to fight the insurgents itself. Even with the happiness and optimism that accompany the successful elections, there will be an American presence in Iraq for the foreseeable future if we truly desire stability. It will take quite a while to assemble and train an effective security force; if all goes well we would have to maintain at least the current number of American soldiers in Iraq for the next 18 months.
When we think that we have at least 18 months of full occupation, we should examine what we have accomplished so far. During our first 22 months in Iraq, the body count reached 1,436 American soldiers and over 15,000 Iraqi civilians. These numbers are greatly exceeded by the numbers of wounded and displaced. We have also further damaged our reputation in the Muslim world by ordering the torture of Iraqi prisoners in ways that are extraordinarily offensive. One could make the argument that the most notable accomplishment of the American occupation was not democracy and freedom, it was creating justification for the hatred that fundamentalist terrorists have for the West.
This was all accomplished in the first half of our occupation of Iraq; extended occupation could create more terrorists and poison in the Middle East. Even as we celebrate the election it is important to ask ourselves if we are ever going to realize our goals in Iraq, or is disengagement the more honorable and safer thing to do? The government the United Sates will eventually leave in Iraq will face violent opposition within its own borders as well as from terrorists throughout the region. I am not confident any government will be able to maintain order. There is a strong possibility that no matter what the United States does Iraq will be enmeshed in chaos and warfare. It would make sense to withdraw troops from Iraq as soon as possible in order to save the most possible lives and to stifle the growing hatred that could lead to more terrorist attacks.
Although I sincerely doubt our troops will be withdrawn for years or that the violence and death will end anytime soon, withdrawal is not the right option. We may save some of our soldiers lives, but huge numbers of Iraqis would die in the chaos that would engulf an American-free Iraq. Also, this type of chaos could breed terrorists even more effectively than the chaos we are currently seeing. Fundamentalists are going to hate the West regardless of our policies in Iraq; U.S. disengagement would not end fundamentalist terrorism. U.S. disengagement would be seen as a success for the terrorists and could mobilize greater terrorism. As bad as it is to stay, leaving would be much worse.
The successful elections are not harbingers of immediate peace and freedom; there very well may be violence and a degree of chaos for years to come. However, the United States is now committed to Iraq and must pay the rising costs to maintain stability and bring democracy. The goals of our mission have changed from finding weapons of mass destruction to creating a free Iraq. Despite the challenges ahead, the successful elections are the very beginnings of a mission truly accomplished.
Ben Turner is a sophomore at Tulane College majoring in international development and international relations. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.