It’s Time for Obama To Re-Engage with Iraq

Iraqi federal policemen stand guard at a checkpoint in Baghdad on Wednesday.

AP Photo/ Karim Kadim

AA Font size + Print

Iraqi federal policemen stand guard at a checkpoint in Baghdad on Wednesday.

Just because the U.S. pulled out of Iraq in 2011 doesn’t mean it doesn’t have a vested interest in the worsening violence there. By Aki Peritz

It’s been an ugly week. The worst news out of Iraq this month is not that Mosul—a city with the population of Philadelphia—fell to the Islamic State of Iraq and the Sham (ISIS); it’s that the U.S. trained and funded Iraqi security forces melted away in the face of the terrorist onslaught—meaning its primary job to battle its domestic enemies is rapidly coming to pieces. The very fabric of Iraq is coming apart.

As President Barack Obama said at West Point’s graduation ceremony late last month, “For the foreseeable future, the most direct threat to America at home and abroad remains terrorism.” If America is serious—deadly serious—about stopping this “direct threat” to this nation, we’re going to have to directly re-engage in Iraq to crush this terrorist threat.

The ISIS takeover of Mosul (and Fallujah several months ago) should be the 5-alarm wakeup call for America’s national security establishment. Mosul had been a longtime ISIS hub of weapons, funds, and personnel, and the group’s successful rout of Iraq’s security forces shows the group is confident enough to fully wipe away Baghdad’s nominal hold on power. They had been controlling major transportation arteries in Nineveh province for a long time, and they’ve finally went in for the kill.

And nothing suggests this is the end. Surely a group capable of taking over a city of hundreds of thousands of people has its sights on other parts of Iraq. The last time Mosul fell under the sway of ISIS’ predecessor group, al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), it took a combination of American Special Operations Forces, Kurdish Peshmerga and Iraqi army units to dislodge them.

The Kurds are still there—they consider Mosul a Kurdish city, even if the rest of Iraq thinks otherwise—and may be planning a counterattack. However, the Peshmerga and whatever is left of the Iraqi military won’t have American special operations forces and the U.S. Air Force backing them up this time. But maybe they should.

Of course, this will be a politically tough sell here at home; Americans are rightfully tired of hearing about Iraq and its never-ending problems. We left Iraq because Baghdad refused to sign the Status of Forces Agreement allowing us to base troops in the country.

This was a major blunder on Iraq’s part—but it gave the U.S. an honorable way to vacate a nation which claimed so many lives and so much effort. And this president has proudly said he was the one who finally extricated America from that conflict.

The president rightly said “a strategy that involves invading every country that harbors terrorist networks is naïve and unsustainable.” Absolutely, and we should not commit to invading any country, even Iraq.

But this White House is also sophisticated enough to realize there are many options between “invasion” and “nothing.” Can we trust local forces such as the Iraqi government to competently do the job—fight terrorism—when their own military leaders abandon their own troops in Mosul before the battle had commenced?  

Yet our current stance of sitting on the sidelines while terrorists gobble up large parcels of land is not really a viable option either because these groups are rarely satisfied with their spoils.  Battling them requires bold action and leadership. The French instinctively understood that and launched Operation Serval against Islamist fighters that had overrun much of Mali.

Many Americans would love the word “Iraq” to just go away. Despite my professional interaction with that country over the last decade, I too wish we didn’t have to maintain a close and continuing interest in that country. But terrorist forces are on the march in that nation, and they are hungry for battle. And they have both the personnel, money, and desire to strike far outside Iraq. Let’s not wait untill they strike an American embassy, or heaven forbid, the homeland.

The barbarians are advancing to the gate. The question, Mr. President, is what are you going to do about it?

Aki Peritz is a former CIA counterterrorism analyst and coauthor of Find, Fix, Finish: Inside the Counterterrorism Campaigns that Killed bin Laden and Devastated Al Qaeda.

Close [ x ] More from DefenseOne

Thank you for subscribing to newsletters from
We think these reports might interest you:

  • Software-Defined Networking

    So many demands are being placed on federal information technology networks, which must handle vast amounts of data, accommodate voice and video, and cope with a multitude of highly connected devices while keeping government information secure from cyber threats. This issue brief discusses the state of SDN in the federal government and the path forward.

  • Military Readiness: Ensuring Readiness with Analytic Insight

    To determine military readiness, decision makers in defense organizations must develop an understanding of complex inter-relationships among readiness variables. For example, how will an anticipated change in a readiness input really impact readiness at the unit level and, equally important, how will it impact readiness outside of the unit? Learn how to form a more sophisticated and accurate understanding of readiness and make decisions in a timely and cost-effective manner.

  • Cyber Risk Report: Cybercrime Trends from 2016

    In our first half 2016 cyber trends report, SurfWatch Labs threat intelligence analysts noted one key theme – the interconnected nature of cybercrime – and the second half of the year saw organizations continuing to struggle with that reality. The number of potential cyber threats, the pool of already compromised information, and the ease of finding increasingly sophisticated cybercriminal tools continued to snowball throughout the year.

  • A New Security Architecture for Federal Networks

    Federal government networks are under constant attack, and the number of those attacks is increasing. This issue brief discusses today's threats and a new model for the future.

  • Information Operations: Retaking the High Ground

    Today's threats are fluent in rapidly evolving areas of the Internet, especially social media. Learn how military organizations can secure an advantage in this developing arena.


When you download a report, your information may be shared with the underwriters of that document.