The Magazine

Obama’s Iraq

Mosul has fallen, and al Qaeda is on the march towards Baghdad

Jun 23, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 39 • By MAX BOOT
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It is hard to exaggerate how much of a disaster this is, not only for Syria and Iraq and their neighbors, but for the United States. Rising oil prices (crude oil rose to over $112 a barrel last week), which could torpedo a weak economic recovery, are just the start of it. Senior intelligence officials have testified recently that they fear Syria could become a launching ground for attacks against the United States. Similar concerns now must extend to Iraq. Certainly, the track record of Islamist militants suggests that whenever they control a piece of terrain—whether Afghanistan before 2001 or Mali in 2013—they immediately set up training camps for foreign jihadists, some of whom then filter back to their home countries to commit atrocities. At the least, neighboring states such as Jordan and Saudi Arabia will be destabilized by the growing strength of ISIS; at the worst, the American homeland and Americans overseas will be threatened.

How did this disaster come about and what can be done about it? Critics of the Iraq war affix blame to President George W. Bush’s decision to invade in 2003. But there is no guarantee that, even absent American intervention, Saddam Hussein would have had any more luck staying in power than other Arab despots. A civil war might well have broken out in Iraq anyway, as has been the case in Syria and Libya. It is true that Bush’s mismanagement from 2003 to 2007 aggravated the situation, especially his foolish decisions to disband the Iraqi Army without sending enough U.S. troops to fill the vacuum and to purge Baathists from the government in a process that was hijacked by Shiite militants such as Ahmad Chalabi. This created the lawless conditions out of which both Sunni and Shiite extremists arose. 

The “surge,” however, turned the tide and created an opening for a more stable and democratic Iraq. Al Qaeda in Iraq was decimated in 2007-08. As a result Shiite militias such as Moktada al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army lost their rationale of protecting Shiites from Sunni terrorism. Violence fell by more than 90 percent, and Iraqi politics began to function. But that tenuous calm started to unravel the minute that U.S. troops pulled out at the end of 2011.

Freed of effective American oversight, Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki gave full vent to his Shiite sectarian tendencies by persecuting senior Sunni politicians and many of the Sunni commanders who, as part of the American-backed Sons of Iraq, had once fought against al Qaeda. Fearing that they no longer had a place in Iraqi politics, many Sunnis welcomed back ISIS as their defenders. The Iraqi military, in turn, was unable to effectively combat the growing terrorist threat because it had been deprived of American military support and because Maliki stuffed its senior ranks with incompetent party hacks beholden to him. The prime minister further politicized the military, and thus made it less effective, by circumventing the normal chain of command to issue dubious orders to lower-ranking officers. Many soldiers now lack the confidence that they are fighting for Iraqi national interests rather than for a sectarian Shiite agenda. That helps to explain why many of them, especially Sunnis, are so willing to run from a fight against enemies who are fanatically dedicated.

It is hard to know for sure, but odds are Iraq would have continued making progress if at least 10,000 American military advisers were still present. They would not have had to take part in combat, but they would have allowed American diplomats and generals to exert pressure on Maliki to curb his sectarian tendencies, and they would have assisted the Iraqi forces to better find, fix, and finish the insurgents without causing lots of collateral damage.

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