Losing Iraq

January 15, 2014

It was inevitable—not that the Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS, formerly al-Qaeda in Iraq) would eventually exploit the ever-deteriorating political situation to re-establish control over Fallujah and Ramadi, but that here in the U.S. the finger pointing and blame game over “who lost Iraq” would eventually begin.  But, while the recent events in Anbar province might have triggered the finger pointing, both the security situation in Iraq and the political one in Washington are more complex than they might seem, and there’s plenty of blame to go around.

Last weekend, conservatives adopted a “we told you so” attitude toward the Obama administration.   Senators Lindsay Graham and John McCain laid recent events in Iraq squarely at the feet of the current president, blaming him for the unrest in the Middle East and the ongoing violence in Anbar.  McCain’s office issued a press release, in which the Arizona senator claimed that “When President Obama withdrew all U.S. forces from Iraq in 2011…many of us predicted that the vacuum would be filled by America’s enemies and would emerge as a threat to U.S. national security interests.”  Representative Duncan Hunter went so far as to say, “What this president did was abandon everything that we fought for because Iraq could not sustain itself without some American involvement.”

If conservatives find President Obama an easy target to blame, he’s done nothing to make it harder for them.  For years, he’s made no apology for his feelings on the Iraq War, and since 2011, has taken great pride in telling the American public, “I ended the war in Iraq.”   Prior to that, as a state senator, he referred to Iraq as “a dumb war,” and as a presidential candidate said, “I will remove one or two brigades a month, and get all of our combat troops out of Iraq within 16 months.”

So, is it the current president’s fault?  While revisionist history might have us believe so, it wasn’t the Obama administration that first agreed to withdraw all U.S. forces from Iraq.  We often forget that in early 2009, while preparing for a presidential transition, the Bush administration negotiated a long-term security agreement with the government of Iraq, agreeing to a total withdrawal of U.S. troops by the end of 2011.  During the 2008 negotiations over security arrangements, the Bush administration found itself stymied by Iraqi reticence to provide legal immunity for U.S. forces in Iraq, and ultimately agreed to a total pullout of all U.S. forces by the end of 2011.

Upon taking office in 2009, President Obama immediately began to negotiate with Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s government in Iraq for a more favorable agreement to the U.S., continuing to draw down, but leaving behind an estimated five-to-ten thousand U.S. troops to provide training and advice to the Iraqi military.  What the U.S. needed was an Iraqi approval of a Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) to provide legal protection for U.S. military personnel and property in Iraq.  An agreement of this nature was a line in the sand for the Obama administration—without a SOFA, U.S. personnel would be subject to Iraqi law and prosecution, unthinkable at the time.

However, in the aftermath of the disastrous April 2010 Iraqi national election, Prime Minister Maliki, facing a collapse of his national unity government and demands from his political rivals Ayad Allawi and Moqtada al-Sadr, was unable to garner the requisite level of support from the Iraqi parliament for the U.S. to stay.  So, in October 2011, with no agreement in hand (and with the support of 75% of the American public), Obama ordered home the troops.

At that point, all was not lost.  In the aftermath of the U.S. troop surge and the Anbar Awakening, violence in Iraq was down from a high of over 3,000 Iraqi deaths in November 2006 to less than a tenth of that—279—in November 2011.  The country had successfully conducted two elections in which millions of Iraqis exercised their constitutional rights to vote.  The Iraqi military had been rebuilt at considerable expense to the U.S., and exercised control over all of Iraq, minus Kurdistan.  Most importantly, al-Qaeda in Iraq was decimated, a shell of its former self.  We had taken our hand off the bike seat, and Iraq was upright, pedaling under its own power.

Unfortunately, Maliki squandered his opportunity, placing his desire to hold onto power ahead of the interests of the country and its people.  He ultimately bears much of the responsibility for the situation at hand, namely because of his failure to ensure that his government was inclusive for all Iraqi citizens.

The day after the last U.S. soldier left Iraq, Maliki, a Shia, sent his security forces to arrest one of his vice presidents, Tariq al-Hashemi, a Sunni, accusing him of running a death squad and assassinating police officers and public officials.  Hashemi escaped, but was convicted in abstenstia and sentenced to death.  Maliki then used the very institutions that the U.S. spent millions of dollars to develop—the courts, police, and army—to persecute his political rivals and marginalize the Sunnis in Anbar.  The government of Iraq’s heavy-handed persecution of its political rivals and oppression of Sunnis have given al-Qaeda in Iraq—under its new ISIS banner—an opportunity to regain a foothold, and have provided potent propaganda material for the group’s quest to set up a new Islamic state in the territory of Anbar and eastern Syria.

It is truly a travesty that Maliki gave away the opportunity presented him by the U.S.  At tremendous cost to the U.S. in both blood and treasure, incidents of violence had dropped by the time American troops left the country to a point where it was possible for the government of Iraq to expand on hard-fought gains and build a rule-of-law based democracy that could have provided a much-needed example of stability in the troubled Middle East.

Through miscues by both the Bush and Obama administrations, the U.S. has lost much of its ability to influence the outcome in Iraq.  But, we shouldn’t forget that it wasn’t a U.S. decision for all American troops to leave.  It was an Iraqi one.  Further, decisions made by Prime Minister Maliki have fragmented his country, deteriorating the security situation and leaving it in far worse shape than it was when the U.S. military presence ended.  And now, fittingly somehow, the future of Iraq is in Iraqi hands.  It’s up to them to determine how this chapter of their history will end.


Captain Bradley Russell has served 29 years in the U.S. Navy and is a former commander of the Electronic Attack Wing at Naval Air Station Whidbey Island.  His most recent assignment was as a military fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations; prior to that, he served as the Chief of Staff for the U.S. Navy’s Fifth Fleet in Bahrain.  The views he presents are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of the U.S. Navy.