No triumphant banner was unfurled on the bridge of an aircraft carrier as the last U.S. combat brigade departed Iraq, but the soldiers heading home could be forgiven their sense of exultation. They had accomplished their mission; it was not their fault that it had been redefined over and over again during the seven years and five months of combat operations. Whatever their political masters required of them, they unfailingly delivered. Smash Saddam's army? Check. Crush the Shi'ite Mahdi Army? Check. Wrest Fallujah from the Sunni insurgency twice? Check and check. Make friends with the same insurgents to defeat al-Qaeda? Check. They weren't ordered to finish that job, however, and their pullout was greeted by the terrorists with celebratory carnage: bombings in at least 13 Iraqi cities on Aug 25.
Also incomplete were the many non-soldiering tasks assigned to the troops. They built schools and sewage systems, disbursed small-business loans and helped irrigate fields, drank bottomless cups of sweetened tea in order to build relationships with tribal elders and city politicians. But they were not given time to consolidate these gains; left unprotected, they may swiftly be lost.
There are other orders to be obeyed. Nearly 50,000 uniformed service personnel remain in Iraq to provide training and other services. They are not designated combat troops but are armed and ready to be deployed should combat become necessary. Not only does such a likelihood exist; its chances have multiplied in recent months as the numbers of suicide bombings and civilian deaths have again soared. The Aug. 25 bombings suggest al-Qaeda and its supporters have embarked on a surge of their own. Their murderous cause, unchecked by Iraq's feckless political elite almost six months after a general election, there's still no government will be empowered by the dwindling of the U.S. military presence.
There's ample reason to believe that the Iraqis will get it right in the end: theirs is a modern nation, rich in resources both human and material. But confidence that they will eventually conquer their demons and solve their problems is tempered by the suspicion that things may get much worse before they get better. There was little celebration among Iraqis as the last U.S. combat brigade rumbled down the highway to Kuwait. Only a sense of exhausted resignation.