Back in 2008, George W. Bush was asked to respond to Republican presidential candidate John McCain's primary trail claim that American troops could be in Iraq for 100 years or more.
"I don't know if 100 years is the right number," said Bush. "That's a long time."
Looks like Bush was right. On Thursday, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta held court in an open-air cement bunker in the former Baghdad airport turned military base and announced the official end to the American occupation in Iraq, congratulating the more than one million Americans in service for contributing to their "remarkable progress" in the region.
“Let me be clear: Iraq will be tested in the days ahead—by terrorism, and by those who would seek to divide, by economic and social issues, by the demands of democracy itself,” Mr. Panetta said, according to the New York Times. “Challenges remain, but the U.S. will be there to stand by the Iraqi people as they navigate those challenges to build a stronger and more prosperous nation.”
While the news ensures many joyful reunions with families and loved ones over the holidays, the emotions surrounding the withdrawal are decidedly conflicted. In stark contrast to the bombast that accompanied America's entry into the region, the exit ceremony was subdued, paying homage to the 4,487 American lives lost and 32,226 wounded in action and acknowledging much still needed to be done in the region.
Here are more key statistics from the war:
In 2007, at the height of the war, there were 505 coalition bases and more than 170,000 troops in Iraq. Today there are two bases.
About $1 trillion of U.S. taxpayer funds were spent or approved for spending for Iraq through 2011.
30 percent of U.S. troops developed serious mental-health problems within three to four months of returning home.
82 percent of Iraqis were "strongly opposed" to coalition troops.
It cost $390,000 to deploy just one U.S. soldier for one year in Iraq.
Number of U.S. troops remaining in Iraq now that the war is over: 4,000.
The question we're left with is this: Nearly nine years after it began, was the Iraq conflict worth it?
Critics of the war point to the hundreds of billions of dollars spent, the hundreds of thousands of civilian lives lost, and the damage done to our reputation in the region, where many still consider the U.S.-led attack unprovoked. Supporters of the war argue that although we went to Iraq looking for weapons of mass destruction, even though no WMDs were found, the world is better off without Saddam Hussein, and that instilling democracy in the region will pay dividends for future generations.
"Those lives have not been lost in vain," said Panetta to NPR. "They gave life to an independent, free and sovereign Iraq. And because of the sacrifices made, these years of war have now yielded to a new era of opportunity."
Whether Panetta's forecast is true or not, only time will tell.