The news that al Qaeda has reportedly gained (at least) temporary control of Fallujah and Ramadi is devastating to veterans of the Iraq war. It is, of course, the same Fallujah that Marines and soldiers fought multiple bloody battles to capture in 2004; and it’s the same Ramadi that was the centerpiece of the 2007-2008 surge strategy in Anbar Province. In total, one-third of U.S. deaths during the war occurred in Anbar Province—mostly fighting to control Fallujah and Ramadi.
It was there that some of the best and brightest Americans spilled blood to prevent an al Qaeda—and Islamists of all stripes—safe-haven inside the new Iraq. Our warriors cleared hostile neighborhoods, patrolled dangerous streets, met with tribal leaders, trained local police, and fought shoulder-to-shoulder with the Iraqi army. And after the Anbar awakening and counterinsurgency/surge strategy of 2007-2008, our brave Americans left behind an Anbar province—and Iraq writ-large—with the prospect for an advantageous political outcome. Which was ultimately the point of winning those battles and killing those insurgents.
And now, with this latest news, it feels like Iraq might be headed toward a point were it could all have been for nothing. Of course, it was for something. These men did their job, and did it well. Nobody wants to spill blood for a lost cause, and those who fought are justifiably outraged. But the larger outrage comes because Iraq was not a lost cause. Far from it, Anbar Province and the entire country was on the right trajectory.
That changed when America elected a commander in chief who was more interested in ending a war than winning one. It’s true the war was unpopular, expensive, and had dragged on too long. But when it comes to national security, America relies on presidential leadership that puts American national security interests before political expediency. With President Obama, we got the opposite.
Campaign rhetoric (Afghanistan is the good war, Iraq the bad war) replaced measured judgment, and naïve rhetorical comforts (Iraq is better off without continued U.S. presence) replaced difficult realities. As a result, America abandoned a long-term commitment to a successful outcome in Iraq—willfully failing to sign a Status of Forces Agreement that would have kept a residual force in Iraq—thereby checking Iranian meddling, training Iraqi Forces, and most importantly, shepherding nascent political progress.
No doubt Iraqi prime minister Nouri Al-Maliki deserves plenty of blame in all this. Instead of utilizing hard-fought security advances to cement peace with Sunni rivals, he has spent years marginalizing Sunni opponents—creating the environment that led to the current sectarian crisis. But Maliki was also encouraged by a new-found, post-American friend: the Iranians. Iran stepped up to fill the void left by America, undermining political reconciliation at every turn. They have been happy to foment division as a means to unraveling America's investment in Iraq.
Setting aside Maliki's self-interested choices, the lack of American influence is the underlying reason for these developments in Iraq. We were so eager to leave, that we didn't care to ensure the Iraq we left behind was prepared to endure. Instead, we rushed to the exits—consequences to be damned.
Pete Hegseth is the CEO of Concerned Veterans for America, a contributor at The Blaze, and an Army veteran of Afghanistan, Iraq, and Guantanamo Bay.