AS 42 coordinated attacks swept through Iraq on Monday, killing at least 92 people and wounding hundreds, they shattered the notion that Iraq has stabilized. What isn’t clear is if this violence, strategically timed to fall on the halfway mark of the holy month of Ramadan, is the precursor of a bigger storm to come or the last storm before the quiet.
Using a combination of suicide attacks, car and homemade bombs, and lone gunmen, insurgents made a simple point: They are almost as strong as they were in the most violent days of the sectarian clashes of 2006-2007. Iraqi security forces neither anticipated nor stopped the slaughter. And while no group has claimed credit, Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia had hinted last week that it was planning a large-scale killing.
Violence is not abating in Iraq. After US combat troops withdrew last year, 50,000 troops remained to support and train Iraqi forces. Those troops have faced high casualty rates; 14 US service members were killed in June, the deadliest month for the United States in three years. All of this comes just a few weeks after the Iraqi government agreed to discuss the possibility that some US troops would stay to assist in training efforts past the withdrawal deadline this January.
A single day does not define the success or failure of a war that should never have been fought. President Obama has rightly insisted on an aggressive withdrawal plan for combat troops. But the insurgent attacks raise fundamental questions about the lessons of Iraq. First, did President Bush’s much-heralded troop surge really work? The answer is essential to understanding whether the extended US commitment has made life better for Iraqis, and whether similar efforts in Afghanistan can be fruitful. Second, with security forces so clearly unable to fight an internal insurgency, what more can be gained by keeping US troops in Iraq after January?
Billions of dollars and thousands of lives later, the story of the war in Iraq is not yet in the history books. The war continues, and this week’s news is a reminder that the notion of mission accomplished is no better understood today than it was in 2003.