You can be forgiven if you didn’t. Wars of the 21st century aren’t really marked with start and end dates. Such are the battlefields of counter-insurgency and of the struggle against terrorism.
But August 31st was still an important day. It did, in fact, begin a New Dawn — the name of the new American operation in Iraq.
The 50,000 US troops that are still in Iraq today, and tens of thousands more embassy staff, civilian officials, and security contractors are, beginning on September 1, 2010, part of Operation New Dawn. That is still quite a presence, but the change in terminology is more than symbolic.
We are still fighting battles in Iraq, and the Iraqi people are still bearing the brunt of the struggle to bring peace and stability to their country. But now U.S. forces are solely trainers and advisors.
But a more important role is not reflected in such titles. Simply having a U.S. presence brings peace to many Iraqis, and causes the more nefarious actors to proceed with caution. This is critical as the various factions continue to develop their ability to work together within the political system, and not outside of it.
But Iraqis are on a deadline. Unless Iraq requests a renegotiation of the Security Framework Agreement, all U.S. forces are required to leave Iraq by December 31, 2011. Yes, the embassy staff and an unknown number of private security contractors will remain, but the calming – and I do mean calming – influence of U.S. military forces will be gone.
Once the Iraqis finally form a new government from the elections that were held in March, our nation must be prepared to consider – at the request of the Iraqi government – a continued presence of U.S. military forces. Somewhere around 15-20,000 will likely be required to continue to help professionalize the Iraqi Army, the Iraqi Police, and the officials that provide guidance and oversight to the Iraqi Security Forces.
Regardless of a potential Iraqi request for a continued U.S. military presence, we must expand the relationships between the American and the Iraqi peoples. It is not the military presence that builds the strongest lasting relationships, it is the person to person contact. That’s why the U.S. State Department must expand cultural and professional exchange programs, as they did to the newly emerging democracies of Eastern Europe following the Cold War. Doing so is not only in the best interests of the Iraqi people, but is also in the best interests of the United States. If Iraq is isolated, among other things, Iran’s influence is likely to increase.
Specifically, the State Department should support independent groups such as Sister Cities International in their efforts to facilitate vibrant cultural and educational programs between U.S. and Iraqi communities. To continue the professionalization of Iraqi Police, the State Department should facilitate the partnership of law enforcement agencies in the United States with those in Iraq.
This is hardly a new concept: Such efforts between the militaries of Eastern Europe and U.S. State National Guards are similar in scope and have been an unqualified success. Similar programs have been successful for nearly 20 years, helping developing countries with technical skills, human rights, and strengthened civilian oversight.
Given the many lives and the amount of money that the United States sacrificed during Operation Iraqi Freedom, we should make these small but crucial investments in Operation New Dawn.
Joe Rice is a Colonel in the US Army Reserve and has served four tours in Iraq. The views reflected are his own.