In the fall of 2002, as the debate over whether to invade Iraq was in full swing, then-Sen. Barack Obama gave a speech at an anti-war rally in Chicago. “I don’t oppose all wars,” Obama said. “What I am opposed to is a dumb war.”
What happened next is already in the history books. But for anyone looking at just how involved the United States will get in this fresh spate of violence in Iraq, it’s Obama’s speech years later in Denver at the Democratic National Convention where he accepted the nomination to run for president that’s the most telling. “You don’t defeat a terrorist network that operates in eighty countries by occupying Iraq,” Obama said then.
Senator Obama opposed the Iraq war; for President Obama, the war in Iraq has long been over. And Secretary of State John Kerry made it crystal clear over the weekend that the Iraqis are on their own: “This is their fight.”
Last year the U.S. sent to Iraq six C-130 aircraft, a rapid Avenger surface-to-air missile battery, 27 helicopters and 12 P301 patrol boats. The Pentagon is expediting the delivery of 100 Hellfire missiles and 10 ScanEagle unmanned aerial vehicles – but these won’t arrive until the spring. The U.S. is also sending 48 Raven surveillance UAVs that won’t arrive until later this year.
Meanwhile, the violence in Iraq is only getting worse by the day – including in Anbar Province where the bulk of U.S. troops were killed during the Iraq War and where the Anbar Awakening of Sunni leaders sided with the United States against the insurgency and helped turn the tide of the bloody war.
Ret. Marine Corps Gen. John Allen, who served as deputy commander of Multi-National-Forces-West in Iraq during 2007 and 2008, and later commanded the Afghanistan war, saw firsthand that Sunni Iraqis, namely the tribal leaders, were willing to stand up to al Qaeda. But in the face of sectarian violence, and without the backing of tens of thousands of U.S. troops, that kind of bravado becomes harder to come by.
“All of us who served in al Anbar, who sacrificed alongside the Anbari people, turn our thoughts and our prayers to the people of Anbar and Fallujah when we hear these reports. Americans and Iraqis fought hard on multiple occasions to take back and secure this city. The sacrifices were enormous,” Allen, who now serves as a distinguished fellow of foreign policy at Brookings, told Defense One. “Fallujah is a jewel in the crown of the Iraqi people, just as is Ramadi, and the Iraqi government must take all measures, promptly, to secure this province, liberate these cities and eradicate the al Qaeda elements which have inflicted these unspeakable depredations on the Iraqi people. For Americans, Anbar and these cities are iconic symbols of how together we and the Iraqis could deal a death blow to al Qaeda; and that blow must fall again and soon.”
Long before Fallujah fell again, the violence was enough of a concern to prompt some American leaders to call for the Obama administration to get involved in Iraq again. Former U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker said in October, “We have a playbook for this, and it doesn’t require Apache helicopters or lots of troops. But it does require good Special Forces and intelligence support.”
At a press briefing on Monday, White House spokesman Jay Carney rejected the idea that having a small force of U.S. and NATO troops in Iraq would make a difference.
“I think it’s important to know, when you make this comparison, which is an excellent question, that there was sectarian conflict, violent sectarian conflict in Iraq when there were 150,000 U.S. troops on the ground there,” Carney said. “So the idea that this would not be happening if there were 10,000 troops in Iraq I think bears scrutiny.”
Carney appears to have omitted the fact that much of the sectarian conflict was caused by the U.S. invasion of Iraq, which then led to dismantling the Sunni-led government and military and the rise of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, a Shiite. Maliki’s reign has not been welcoming to Sunnis in Iraq, to say the least, and has only gotten more divisive since the 2010 election. And the civil war in neighboring Syria is only adding fuel to the fire.
“We’re naive if we believe the events in Anbar are occurring in isolation from the rest of the region. We should listen closely to the analysis of our friends and allies in the region. There is a direct relationship between what’s happening in Lebanon, Syria and Iraq and this instability threatens not just Iraq and her Arab neighbors in the Gulf, it specifically threatens Jordan, an old friend and strategic partner,” Allen said. “The stability of the Hashemite Kingdom is essential to the stability of the region. It also creates greater pressure on the Middle East peace process at a moment when there is real promise in these complicated discussions.”
Maliki traveled to Washington, D.C., last fall to plead with Obama to help him prevent his country from descending into civil war. Maliki didn’t ask for U.S. boots on the ground but the message from Obama was clear: Iraq is your problem now.
In a report released Monday by the Center for Strategic International Studies, Middle East experts Anthony Cordesman and Sam Khazai argued that Maliki has only himself to blame for the violence in his country.
“Iraq suffers badly from the legacy of mistakes the United States made during and after its invasion in 2003. It suffers from the threat posed by the reemergence of violent Sunni extremist movements like al-Qaeda and equally violent Shi’ite militias. It suffers from pressure from Iran and near isolation by several key Arab states. It has increasingly become the victim of the forces unleashed by the Syrian civil war,” the report says. “Its main threats, however, are self-inflicted wounds caused by its political leaders. It’s election in 2010 divided the nation rather than create any form of stable democracy, and pushed Iraq’s prime minister, Maliki to focus on preserving his power and becoming a steadily more authoritarian leader. Other Shi’ite leaders contributed to Iraq’s increasing sectarian and ethnic polarization – as did key Sunni and Kurdish leaders.”
Bing West, author of “No True Glory: A Firsthand Account of the Battles of Fallujah,” agrees that Maliki is the problem.
“Maliki’s oppression of the Sunnis caused this. The U.S. will provide the Iraqi army and the Anbar tribes excellent overhead and intercept intel for the next month and hope the tribes throw out this al Qaeda gang,” West told Defense One. “The Iraqi national election in April will be a mess. Maliki will probably lose.”
So as Afghanistan picks a new president to replace longtime leader Hamid Karzai on April 5, White House and Pentagon officials would be wise to keep a close eye on Iraq’s presidential election, set for April 30. It is perhaps Iraq’s best hope for peace.