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)
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.