How Did I Get Iraq Wrong?

I’m proud of my service there, but now it’s time for us to leave.

Editor’s Note: To mark the fifth anniversary of the invasion of Iraq, Slate has asked a number of writers who originally supported the war to answer the question, “Why did we get it wrong?” We have invited contributions from the best-known “liberal hawks,” many of whom participated in two previous Slate debates about the war, the first before it began in fall of 2002, the second in early 2004. We will be publishing their responses through the week. Read the rest of the contributions.

Thaer Kudier al-Qasi

In 2002, I believed the intelligence painting Iraq as an imminent threat and supported our invasion. In 2003 and 2004, I worried about the growing insurgency and grew dismayed at our counterproductive tactics and strategy, but I still felt the war was a worthy cause.

In 2005, I volunteered to deploy to Iraq as an Army captain—partly because of an implicit threat of involuntary recall, partly because I felt a call to duty, and partly because I felt guilty for not serving when so many of my friends and former comrades-in-arms had done so (often multiple times). I went to Iraq in October 2005 and served a year there as an adviser to the Iraqi police in Baqubah, the provincial capital of Iraq’s volatile Diyala province. I remain proud of what we accomplished. In our little corner of the war, I think we made a difference by training the police, equipping them, mentoring their leaders, and doing what we could to promote the rule of law. Small victories, to be sure, but enough to make us feel our sacrifices had been for something meaningful.

But I came home in September 2006 frustrated with the strategic direction of the war and alienated from the country that sent me there. I saw our failures to secure the country and build a new Iraq as proof of the limits of military power—and a sign that America was not omnipotent. Over a beer near Times Square in October 2006, I told George Packer (who had been embedded with my adviser team earlier that year in Baqubah) that I thought the war was now “unwinnable”—and that we must implement an adviser-centric strategy. I felt then, and feel today, that America’s strategic interests require it to leave Iraq and that the best way to responsibly withdraw was to increasingly put Iraqis in charge of their own counterinsurgency campaign, with U.S. forces nearby to keep a lid on ethno-sectarian violence and continue the fight against al-Qaida in Mesopotamia.

A month later, I received news that soured my feelings toward Iraq and the war there even more. To help my team advise the police and navigate Iraq’s legal system, I had enlisted Dr. Thaer Kudier al-Qasi, a former Iraqi law professor who spoke five languages and seemed to know every lawyer in Diyala. Thaer took good care of me, teaching me what he could about Iraq, even helping me learn a little Arabic. He believed in our cause, too, and he wanted to build a better Iraq for his three sons. But like many Iraqis, Thaer was fatalistic about his life and country. He smoked compulsively, disdained wearing body armor, and spoke publicly about his work helping U.S. forces. He told me frequently that he was just acting out a play that had already been written. In November 2006, he was kidnapped while walking in Baqubah’s central market, presumably by al-Qaida insurgents. Neither the Americans nor his family heard from him again.

I was crushed when I received news of Thaer’s death in an e-mail. I felt guilty for not doing more to protect him, guilty for allowing Thaer to do so much public work for the rule of law (many U.S. translators wear masks) because that work had made him a target, guilty for not doing more to make Iraq safe, guilty for not winning the war (whatever that means). Thaer’s death came to define the war for me. For months afterward, when I looked at Iraq, I saw only death and suffering.

Now, five years into the war, I remain torn between my initial support for the invasion, my frustrating experience as an Army officer on the ground, and my skepticism that we can build a viable Iraq. Security has improved, although it’s not clear who or what deserves credit. The current reduction in violence has made the prospect of a stable Iraq seem possible, if not necessarily probable, because of the Iraqi government’s continuing intransigence. But even if we had the patience and will to stay in Iraq for a generation (and I doubt we have either), I think the time has come to leave. The challenge will be to withdraw more responsibly than we went in.