Looking at Iraq now, it is important to see where we have come from to understand where we can go from here.
In that light, here is the basic outline of what happened when we got out of Iraq.
Many Obama Administration officials supported a long-term US presence there. The Secretary of Defense, Robert Gates wrote in his memoir, “Recognizing the huge political roadblocks, I believed a substantial US presence was needed post-2011 to help keep Iraq stabilized, to continue training and supporting their security forces, and to signal our friends in the region – and Iran – that we weren’t abandoning the field.” (“Duty”, Pg 553)
Saddam’s palace complex in Tikrit, which became the US base FOB Danger, is now occupied by ISIS
Gates added that the US had created its own bed in Afghanistan by mishandling the end of the Soviet War in the late 1980s. “But if we get the endgame wrong in Iraq, I predict the consequences will be far worse,” he told Congress toward the end of his term. (Pg 235)
The last week has seen the cities of northern Iraq fall to a militant group more pernicious than al Qaeda, and more irredentist in their hatred of modernity and the West. Tal Afar, Mosul, Tikrit and by some accounts Samarra have all gone, and the government forces are holding the line about 50 miles north of Baghdad.
The US military at the time of our withdrawal suggested a residual force of 15,000 US soldiers would be adequate to safeguard our gains; fewer than that would prevent US forces from training the Iraqis in the southern part of Iraq, according to Gates.
Most Iraqi leaders wanted the US to stay on. But Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki was not willing to make it a public issue, and the Obama Administration was not inclined to press the Iraqis about it.
Staying on would have required a new Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA). This agreement covers a variety of topics but the primary one prevents US soldiers from being hauled into Iraqis courts for incidents, such as running over Iraqi nationals while driving military vehicles,that could lay them open to local prosecution. The US military won’t go anywhere long-term without ensuring that its soldiers are tried for offenses in US courts rather than local ones.
The US had previously negotiated a SOFA that was due to expire in December 2011. Negotiations over a new one were late and tepid, with the talks really only getting going in August of 2011, which was only a few months prior to the expiration of the old one. The administration would have had to make it a priority to get this done in such a short a time frame, at the US Presidential level, which didn’t happen.
The history is relevant because from it we know two things: that bad things would happen if we screwed up the withdrawal, and that the military recommendations were not followed on how to win the peace.
Iraq was not destined to fail as a state. I have seen Sunnis stand guard with guns supporting the Shia government; January 2007 was my first glimpse of this. At the time, sheikhs told me that they preferred the lousy government to an even worse al Qaeda. The government simply took all the best jobs, while al Qaeda commanders took the sheikhs’ daughters in forced marriages (in a misguided attempt to ‘join the family’) and also cut off people’s hands in medieval practices rejected by ordinary Muslims.
The Iraqi army was not perfect but had a chance of being what it once was; a professional force that was effective, as when it resisted the human wave attacks of Iranian militants for almost eight years under Saddam Hussein. One of the reason the US invasion turned sour was the offended pride of Iraqis who considered their army to be a national institution, and when the US disbanded it Iraqis felt the nation was insulted.
From the perspective of early 2007, when the Sunnis first joined the government side, it seemed likely that it would take 20 more years to get Iraq right. To allay internecine suspicions and let a fledgling government learn enough so that people got along. US help would have been vital. And the seeds to do this successfully had been sown.
Instead the US hunkered down inside its massive $750 million embassy and tried to help the Iraqis on the cheap. It hasn’t worked. And plenty of people at the time said it wouldn’t.
That was a political mistake.
The next post explains what we might do about mitigating this disaster.
President Obama announced his withdrawal plan from Afghanistan this past week and laid out the specifics. “This year we will bring America’s longest war to a responsible end,” he said.
In reality, the withdrawal he described has a slight chance of success and historically has never worked before. It is more likely to fail. To understand why we have to understand what this plan “buys” us for the next few years.
The plan calls for the US to draw down to 9,800 service-members by the end of 2014.
At the end of 2015 we’ll be down to about 5,000 people, sited only in Bagram airfield 30 miles north of Kabul and in Kabul itself.
By the end of 2016 the only service-members in country will be the usual crowd one finds in an embassy, handling sales of equipment to a foreign military.
I am not privy to the military planning, but here is roughly how those people can be used. Simply put, more people in country gives you more reach. With 9,800 people you can advise the Afghan military at the bigger bases in Afghanistan, say at Kandahar in the south, at Jalalabad in the east, at Herat in the west and in Mazar-i-Sharif in the north. The Afghan security forces are still lousy at delivering supplies and planning, and these advisors can help the Afghans get better.
If necessary the US can also provide limited active services, such as flying a few squadrons of fighter-bombers and armed drones to support the Afghans on the ground. The Afghans have no air support of their own because the US has not helped them acquire the planes or training to do so.
Cut the US role in half to 5,000 people and restrict them to Bagram and Kabul and you lose all ability to help the Afghans get better in the provinces, and most of the ability to provide air support. We lose our ability to help in any meaningful manner, and if the Afghans haven’t figured out how to run a war by themselves they are cooked.
If they fail it is because the cards are stacked against them. Given that we only seriously started helping them in 2008 across the country, we are giving the Afghans six years in which to fully train, staff and run an army and a war. This is a country which had almost no education from 1982 until 2002, a period that covers the entire the early lifespan of most officers who now need to use computers and handle logistics for equipment and payroll worth almost $4 billion every year. This is in a country that still lacks a single usable ring-road around the entire country.
Less noticed but equally important is that the lack of US military outside of Kabul will make it impossible for US development officials to monitor any projects across the country. Embassy rules restrict or prohibit development officials traveling anywhere the military cannot secure. So we are in essence cutting our ability to bring progress to a nation that has still, in many or even most areas, seen little development.
The US Agency for International Development has been working feverishly to create new and innovative ways to check that projects it pays for go forward without corruption. These methods might involve satellite pictures or locally-hired monitors. This has never been done before and is not likely to turn out well. And development programs that are suspected to leak money through non-performance or corruption will be shut down if the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan, SIGAR, has its way. SIGAR is a profoundly effective watchdog and no fool.
The typical model in post-war situations that actually work, such as Germany, Japan or Korea, is that the US stays on the ground after the fighting ends and builds up the military and government, helping them get better. For instance, we kept 50,000 soldiers in Korea for decades doing just that.
Afghanistan is being short-changed and penalized because the war is still going on. This is the exact opposite of what should be happening. We should keep 9,800 people there for the next two, five or twelve years, depending on what is needed. To put this commitment in perspective, we have about 700,000 people in the US Army and Marines alone.
President Obama is, in large part, bowing the domestic political pressure. But he has stoked that pressure himself by seldom making any case that the US has a long-term interest in Afghanistan; probably because he does not believe there is one. So his thorny political bed is one he helped make.
Unfortunately, the US cannot assume that just because it stops supporting the Afghan government where it needs help the most, that the Taliban will follow suit and stop fighting too. They will likely fight harder.
According to President Obama, “Now we’re finishing the job we started.”
True. We’re pulling out all right. But this plan is simply not responsible as claimed.