Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city, has long been hard for the central government to control because of its combustible mix of Arabs and Kurds. The first time I visited Mosul was in August 2003 when a tenuous calm was maintained by the 101st Airborne Division. Its commander, a then-obscure two-star general named David Petraeus, had on his own initiative opened the Syrian border to trade, struck deals with Syria and Turkey to provide badly needed electricity, restored telephone service, and held elections to elect local leaders. Along the way he also managed to kill Saddam Hussein’s poisonous offspring Uday and Qusay.
This kept militants at bay, but they returned with a vengeance after the 101st pulled out in 2004, to be replaced by a smaller American unit whose officers were less attuned to the demands of civic action. Mosul became a hotbed of Saddamist and Islamist militants, as I saw for myself in February 2008 when, during another visit, the U.S. Army convoy in which I was riding was hit by a “complex ambush”: The Humvee in front of mine hit a bomb concealed in a big puddle, and insurgents opened machine gun fire from the left. Luckily no one in our unit was hurt, but a bystander had his arm sliced off by a flying piece of the Humvee’s engine.
Mosul was the last major city to be pacified by the successful “surge.” It took until at least 2010 before it was secure. But now that achievement has been undone. Black-clad fighters from the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), as Al Qaeda in Iraq has rebranded itself, stormed into Mosul last week and seized control. Dispirited Iraqi soldiers ran away rather than fight. Many were so eager to escape that their discarded uniforms littered the streets. ISIS freed more than 2,000 of its fighters from prisons and seized copious stocks of money, ammunition, and weapons—many of the latter provided by the United States to Iraqi forces.
This was only the latest and most alarming advance for this extremist group, which has risen out of its grave to display dismaying strength in recent years. In January, ISIS seized Fallujah and holds it still—a loss that, like Mosul, is particularly painful to American veterans who sacrificed so much to wrest control of those cities from militants. Following up on their success in Mosul, ISIS fighters advanced south to seize, at least temporarily, Tikrit, Saddam -Hussein’s hometown, and Baiji, home to Iraq’s largest oil refinery, which supplies Baghdad with much of its electricity. Their next targets are certain to be Baqubah and Baghdad. In the capital, ISIS has already inflicted devastating casualties with a series of car bombings. Iraq Body Count calculates that some 9,500 people were killed in Iraq last year, the highest total since 2008. Worse is surely yet to come as Shiite militant organizations such as Asaib Ahl al-Haq and Kataib Hezbollah respond to Sunni atrocities with atrocities of their own.
This is not just a problem for Iraq. ISIS, as the name implies, has spread across the border into Syria, where it has been showing increasing strength amid the chaos of the Syrian civil war, in no small part because the United States has done so little to aid the non-jihadist opposition to Bashar al-Assad. ISIS is well on its way to carving out a fundamentalist caliphate that stretches from Aleppo in northern Syria to Mosul in northern Iraq. The post-World War I borders of the Middle East seem to be unraveling. Syria is being split into two entities, one controlled by Sunni Islamists, the other by Hezbollah and the Iranian Quds Force and their Alawite proxies. Iraq is being split into three, with a prosperous and stable Kurdish state, a fundamentalist Sunni Triangle state controlled by ISIS, and the Shiite portions of the country under the sway of militants backed by Iran. Iran is directly involved in the fighting in both countries: It has already sent Quds Force troops to Syria and now reportedly to Iraq as well. The only thing that remains to be determined is whether Shiite or Sunni extremists will control the capital—the new battle for Baghdad, which has already begun, is likely to be even bloodier than the previous installment from 2003 to 2008.
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.
So why aren’t U.S. troops still there? Obama’s supporters blame Maliki and other Iraqi politicians for not agreeing to give U.S. troops legal immunity from prosecution. They also blame George W. Bush for negotiating a previous Status of Forces Agreement in 2008 that expired at the end of 2011, even though there was a widespread expectation in both Iraq and the United States that a renewal would occur when the time came. But the truth is, as New York Times correspondent Michael Gordon and retired Marine general Bernard Trainor make clear in their definitive book, The Endgame, Obama did not try very hard to achieve a Status of Forces Agreement. He waited to start the negotiations until the middle of 2011 even though the last round of talks in 2008 took a year; he leaked word that, even if an agreement were reached, the United States would send only a tiny force of fewer than 5,000 soldiers that was hardly worth the trouble; he insisted that the Iraqi parliament would have to approve the accord even though Iraqi leaders told their American counterparts this was unlikely and unnecessary; he refused to get directly involved in the negotiations; and then he pulled the plug on the talks when they hit their first major obstacle. Obama’s heart just wasn’t in it. He had won the presidency largely because of his opposition to the Iraq war, and he saw no good reason to prolong America’s troop presence.
Obama tried hard to sell the troop pullout as a victory. On December 14, 2011, at Fort Bragg, he said: “Everything that American troops have done in Iraq—all the fighting and all the dying, the bleeding and the building, and the training and the partnering—all of it has led to this moment of success. Now, Iraq is not a perfect place. It has many challenges ahead. But we’re leaving behind a sovereign, stable, and self-reliant Iraq, with a representative government that was elected by its people.”
Sovereign, stable, and self-reliant? Not quite. More like deeply divided, violent, dysfunctional, and chaotic. Iraq does have an elected government but one that roughly half of the population—Sunnis and Kurds—feels doesn’t represent them.
In hindsight, the pullout from Iraq looks increasingly like the pullout from Vietnam a generation before. “We want a decent interval,” Henry Kissinger told Chinese leaders, implying that Washington would be okay with the conquest of South Vietnam by North Vietnam as long as it didn’t occur immediately after American troops left. A “decent interval” is what Obama got in Iraq—the country stayed quiet long enough to allow him to run for reelection in 2012 as the president who “ended the war.” In truth, however, Obama has helped restart the war.
Is there anything that can be done at this late date to rescue the situation? Sending more arms to the Iraqi military won’t do the trick. After the fall of Fallujah, the United States rushed Hellfire missiles and ScanEagle drones to Iraq. Soon the U.S. will deliver F-16 fighters and Apache gunships. Now Maliki is even said to be asking for American air strikes. None of them will do any good as long as Maliki continues to alienate Sunnis. In fact, heavier weapons may aggravate the situation by allowing Maliki’s men to kill more Sunnis.
To break this worsening cycle of violence, the Obama administration needs to do something it has never done before—get fully engaged in Iraq from the president on down. It needs to see if Iraq might be willing to accept the return of U.S. military advisers, intelligence personnel, Predators, and Special Operations Forces, along with enhanced military aid, in return for political reforms designed to bring Shiites and Sunnis closer together and thus eliminate ISIS’s base of popular support.
There is actually a point of leverage that Obama could employ if he chose to do so. On April 30 Iraq held a parliamentary election in which Maliki’s Rule of Law slate emerged on top with 92 seats. But that’s not enough to form a government, which requires 165 seats. To win a third term in office, Maliki needs the support of other parties, especially the Kurds and other Shiite factions.
His reelection looked like a foregone conclusion before the fall of Mosul, but the collapse of the Iraqi security forces in the north is a major embarrassment that Maliki will have trouble explaining away. If Washington were to throw whatever weight it has on the side of Maliki’s opponents, there might just be an opportunity to select a new prime minister who would be less identified with Shiite sectarian causes—someone who could begin to heal Iraq’s divisions rather than exacerbate them as Maliki has done.
This would need to be combined with action in Syria to roll back Islamist advances there, meaning principally providing more arms and training to the nonjihadist opposition to Bashar al-Assad. This could be coupled with American airstrikes directed not only against Assad’s forces but also those of ISIS and other Islamist organizations such as the Nusra Front.
This is all a long shot because it presumes (a) that the United States still has leverage that it can employ in Iraq after years of neglect, (b) that the moderate opposition in Syria can still act effectively after years of similar neglect, and (c) that Obama is willing to act strongly and decisively in the Middle East instead of abandoning the region as he seems intent on doing. But it’s the only chance to stop Iraq’s descent further into the abyss. If Obama doesn’t act now, the loss of Syria and Iraq will hover like a dark cloud over his presidency just as the early losses in the Iraq war loomed over his predecessor’s presidency.
Max Boot is a contributing editor to The Weekly Standard and a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. He is the author of Invisible Armies: An Epic History of Guerrilla Warfare from Ancient Times to the Present.