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

Iraqi federal policemen stand guard at a checkpoint in Baghdad on Wednesday. AP Photo/ Karim Kadim

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

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.