It is said that generals always fight the last war. But when David Petraeus came to town it was senators — on both sides of the aisle — who battled over the Iraq war of 2004-2006. That war has little in common with the war we are fighting today.
I may well have spent more time embedded with combat units in Iraq than any other journalist alive. I have seen this war — and our part in it — at its brutal worst. And I say the transformation over the last 14 months is little short of miraculous.
The change goes far beyond the statistical decline in casualties or incidents of violence. A young Iraqi translator, wounded in battle and fearing death, asked an American commander to bury his heart in America. Iraqi special forces units took to the streets to track down terrorists who killed American soldiers. The U.S. military is the most respected institution in Iraq, and many Iraqi boys dream of becoming American soldiers.
We know now that we can pull off a successful counterinsurgency in Iraq. We know that we are working with an increasingly willing citizenry. But counterinsurgency, like community policing, requires lots of boots on the ground. You can’t do it from inside a jet or a tank.
Over the past 15 months, we have proved that we can win this war. We stand now at the moment of truth. Victory — and a democracy in the Arab world — is within our grasp. But it could yet slip away if our leaders remain transfixed by the war we almost lost, rather than focusing on the war we are winning today.