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An Unheralded Anniversary

Ending the Iraq War Has Strengthened Overall U.S. National Security

SOURCE: AP/ Maya Alleruzzo

The last vehicles in a convoy of the U.S. Army's 3rd Brigade, 1st Cavalry Division crosses the border from Iraq into Kuwait on December 18, 2011. The brigade's special troops battalion are the last American soldiers to leave Iraq.

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Event: Ending the Iraq War and Strengthening U.S. National Security

This week marks the ninth anniversary of the start of the Iraq war. Americans should pause to remember and honor the hundreds of thousands of brave men and women who served there, especially the 4,486 who died in the service of our country. Their service and sacrifices deserve recognition, no matter the controversies that continue to trouble the nation over the rationale, execution, and consequences of the war.

President Barack Obama came to office on a pledge to end the Iraq war, and his administration fulfilled that pledge—U.S. troops left the country last year rather than staying with an open-ended commitment that many had proposed. The redeployment of U.S. troops from Iraq from 2008 to 2011 strengthened overall U.S. national security in five key ways:

  • Dedicated more resources to fight the Al Qaeda network
  • Restored U.S. military readiness
  • Expanded options to deal with other Middle East threats, including Iran and its nuclear program
  • Reduced the financial burden of the United States caused by war
  • Rebalanced overall U.S. national security strategy to deal with the real threats to our nation

Each of these achievements is worth reviewing this anniversary week.

Dedicated more resources to fight the Al Qaeda network

The redeployment of U.S. troops from Iraq freed up more resources for the United States to focus on dealing with Al Qaeda and its affiliates around the world, particularly in Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Yemen. Since 2009 the United States has dealt devastating blows to the global Al Qaeda network, including taking Osama bin Laden and about two dozen other high-value targets off the battlefield.

These developments have brought the global Al Qaeda movement closer to strategic defeat than ever before. Withdrawing from Iraq also eliminated one of the major rallying cries and recruitment tools for Al Qaeda—the presence of a large number of U.S. troops in the heart of the Muslim world.

Restored U.S. military readiness

Before U.S. troops started redeploying from Iraq in 2008, the United States had more than 200,000 troops on the ground in Iraq and Afghanistan combined. Four years later less than half that number of troops remain, with about 90,000 troops in Afghanistan today. The Iraq war weakened overall U.S. military readiness because the repeated deployments placed considerable strains on U.S. military personnel and their families and resulted in equipment shortages and arsenals in the U.S. Army and Marines.

The Iraq war also contributed to declines in the number of recruits and forced the military to lower their recruiting standards. To meet its targets, the military accepted recruits with criminal records, poor physical-fitness records, and histories of drug and alcohol abuse. The end of the Iraq war will allow the military to take steps to restore overall U.S. military readiness.

Expanded options to deal with other Middle East threats, including Iran and its nuclear program

The Iraq redeployment expanded and strengthened U.S. policy options on a range of broader challenges in the Middle East, particularly Iran. From 2003 to 2008 U.S. troops became mired in Iraq’s multiple internal conflicts, hampering our military, diplomatic, and political capabilities to deal effectively with Iran’s nuclear program and its regional ambitions. During this period Iran achieved a rapid expansion of its regional influence.

Since 2009 Iran has seen its power and credibility throughout the region fade. The redeployment of U.S. troops from Iraq increased America’s political, diplomatic, and military options for dealing with Iran. It also enabled the United States to become more deeply engaged in offering the right support for transitions in Libya, Yemen, Egypt, and Tunisia.

Reduced the financial burden of the United States caused by the war

The Iraq war cost U.S. taxpayers far more than the initial estimates provided by the Bush administration in 2003. The costs in fact were upward of $1 trillion, when costs for replenishing the military’s equipment and the projected long-term health care for Iraq war veterans are included.

At the height of the Iraq war, the monthly costs for U.S. taxpayers exceeded $10 billion. The redeployment of U.S. troops from Iraq reduced the overall financial burden for U.S. taxpayers— with $45 billion spent in the last full fiscal year U.S. troops were stationed there.

Rebalancing overall U.S. national security strategy to deal with the real threats to our nation

During the Iraq war the United States was not aligning its considerable resources to address the global threats and challenges our country faced in the world. The United States overinvested in Iraq to the detriment of dealing other global security challenges, including new global economic concerns, climate change, and nuclear proliferation.

By ending the Iraq war, the Obama administration was able to focus more resources and attention to these challenges. The pivot toward Asia announced during President Obama’s trip to that region last year is one key example of this rebalancing.

The future of the United States and Iraq

At the end of 2011, the United States ended one phase of U.S. engagement in Iraq and started a new phase. This new phase involves continued diplomatic, economic, and security support to the Iraqi government. Iraqis continue to face considerable challenges and hardship, but now their leaders have a greater responsibility to address these problems.

The United States needed to end the Iraq war to rebalance its overall national security strategy, and it needs to remain engaged with Iraq to offer much needed support. We all honor those who served there knowing the Obama administration took the right step in fulfilling its commitment to end the Iraq war.

Brian Katulis is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress.

Event: Ending the Iraq War and Strengthening U.S. National Security

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