This week's pullout of U.S. combat troops raises the serious question of what is Iraq's future. Perhaps it will be that which President Barack Obama stated: "History will decide the origins of the war."
But it is clear that historians will also judge the consequences of the war, and its continuing aftermath, not just for the United States but for Iraq, the Middle East and Southwest Asia as well.
Given its near 9-year occupancy of Iraq and the little that was accomplished for Americans or for Iraqis, historians' judgments will be harsh: 4,500 U.S. troops killed, 60,000 wounded, mentally handicapped and traumatized.
Then, there is the expense: $1 trillion in direct costs and an estimated $4 trillion in long-term, mostly medical, costs.
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Historians must also consider the damage to Iraq and its peoples: Phebe Marr, the doyenne of American scholars of Iraq, in the just-published The Modern History of Iraq, estimated that around 1 million people died in the war.
But the damage was much greater than just the killed and wounded: 1.7 million to 2.3 million Iraqis, mostly Arabs, were driven into Syria and Jordan. There are an estimated 300,000 widows; 2 million women are now the main breadwinners in extended families. Some 300,000 have taken up prostitution. There may be as many as 2 million or more orphans; some 600,000 living in the streets.
The physical infrastructure is in shambles. Electricity, sewage, water, telephone and fiber optic grids only function sporadically. The medical facilities are in very poor shape.
In the course of the war, it is estimated that of the 34,000 doctors in 2003 only 17,000 remain, most lightly trained. An estimated 800 doctors and professors, mostly Sunnis, were killed in the war. Many Arab doctors have fled to the Kurdish-controlled Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in the north.
Analysts say it will take two generations or more for medical and educational systems to recuperate. Even then, with teachers facing traumatized and handicapped students, education and progress will be set back yet another generation.
In 2003, at the start of the war, 17 percent of Iraqis, mostly Arabs, lived in slum-like conditions; at the end of 2011 that figure stood at 50 percent.
Even as the living conditions worsened, the changed geopolitical situation also confronted Iraqis with new realities. The U.S. invasion for the first time in history, excepting Iran, brought Shi'a to state power. This incurred hostility not just from Arabs, but from many Muslims, 90 percent of whom are Sunni.
Moreover, they were brought to power by a Christian nation for its own hegemonic ambitions in the Middle East. Not only did U.S. policies lead to Shi'a coming to power, but also led to the division of the country between Kurds and Arabs. It is difficult for all Arabs, not just the Arabs of Iraq, to understand why a country like the U.S. — which fought a civil war in which 4 million people died to save the union — would so nonchalantly destroy another sovereign country.
U.S. policies resulted not just in the division of Iraq into two separate entities, but also our strong support of the 2005 constitution ensured that the KRG would obtain control over oil and gas resources and maybe obtain the oil and gas resources in the disputed territories which lie between the KRG and Sunni Arab provinces comprising 8 percent of Iraq's total land mass.
If it turns out that such territories hold 50 billion or more barrels of oil and extensive gas fields, then the KRG's independent status, if not international recognition, will be assured. This will also be the end of any hope for a strong central government, let alone a nationalist-federal one: America's unraveling of Iraq will be sustained.
After the 2010 parliamentary elections, Prime Minister Nur al-Maliki was compelled to rely on Shi'a factions to retain power putting an end to any hope of a Shi'a-led, but Sunni participative coalition. Iraq had become unraveled with little hope of an unauthoritarian government being in power.
Washington saw the handwriting on the barricades: it was time to leave. Then, too, presidential elections were to be held in November 2012. Better now to declare victory than to wait for the historians to make their judgments — knowing they would not be good.