In a web video released Monday, the Obama campaign celebrated the withdrawal of American forces from Iraq. “As your commander in chief, and on behalf of a grateful nation, I'm proud to finally say these two words, and I know your families agree - welcome home. Welcome home," Obama says in a clip from a speech he gave at Fort Bragg in December. The president repeats that phrase again for dramatic effect, “Welcome home.”
Also on Monday, al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) launched a lethal series of attacks – the largest coordinated assault by the group in some time. More than 100 Iraqis were killed in what the New York Times rightly calls an “ambitiously staged sequence of 40 attacks that covered a broad area of the country.” AQI is gaining ground once again, both in Iraq and in Syria, where a new front for jihad has opened up for al Qaeda and affiliated parties.
And that highlights the basic problem with President Obama’s political argument. For months, the president has argued that he “responsibly” ended the war in Iraq. An Iraq veteran repeats this argument in the new campaign video, using the same word – “responsibly.”
But what does that mean? Is it responsible to oversee the withdrawal of all of America’s combat forces regardless of on the ground realities? Apparently so.
It is understandable that a sizable number of Americans want to see U.S. forces come home. But that doesn’t mean our enemies are going home. They fight on, as the head of al Qaeda’s Islamic State of Iraq (ISI) reminded everyone in a video released this past weekend.
“Our war with you has only begun, so wait,” Abu Bakr al Baghdadi, the head of the ISI said in a message. It was a taunt clearly aimed at the U.S. as al Baghdadi, according to a translation provided by the SITE Intelligence Group, promised: "The mujahideen have launched after your armies, and have swore to make you taste something harder than what Osama [bin Laden] had made you taste. You will see them in your home, Allah permitting.”
AQI doesn’t have to launch attacks against the U.S. in order to cause major headaches for the international community. For instance, the Obama administration has argued that AQI’s push into Syria (where it had a sizable logistical network even before the rebellion against Assad began) means that America cannot arm any of the anti-Assad rebels.
“We believe that al Qaeda in Iraq is extending its reach into Syria,” Director of National Intelligence James Clapper told the Senate Armed Services Committee in February.
The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Martin Dempsey, echoed Clapper’s testimony during an interview on CNN. “There's indications that al Qaeda is involved and that they're interested in supporting the opposition,” Gen. Martin Dempsey argued. “There's a number of players, all of whom are trying to reinforce their particular side of this issue. And until we're a lot clearer about, you know, who they are and what they are, I think it would be premature to talk about arming them.”
An anonymous administration official made the same argument to the Washington Post just recently, saying “there could be a number of extremist elements” fighting inside Syria. Without clear intelligence on the composition of the Syrian rebellion, the administration is reluctant to provide arms to any of the rebels.
Of course, there are actors other than al Qaeda fighting the wounded Syrian regime. The rebellion was not started by al Qaeda. But al Qaeda still has decent cards to play in Syria and Iraq whereas America’s hand is undoubtedly much weaker now. Whatever one thinks of the war in Iraq, the simple fact of the matter is that without some U.S. combat forces on the ground America has no ability to fight AQI and affiliated groups directly.
America’s intelligence apparatus has suffered as well, introducing new blind spots and making it difficult to tell the difference between good rebels and AQI-affiliated ones. The Post reports that intelligence from inside Syria is sparse. A more robust American presence inside Iraq would have helped solve this problem as AQI operated along the Syrian-Iraqi border for years. Such a presence would have made it easier to see the full scope of AQI’s operations in both countries.
Thus, there is a palpable tension between President Obama’s domestic political argument and reality. While President Obama is congratulating himself for the end of America’s combat presence in Iraq, AQI is launching more sophisticated attacks and expanding its reach in nearby Syria. U.S. troops have come home, but that doesn’t mean the president “ended” the war in Iraq, as he likes to argue. The war hasn’t ended for AQI.
In his message this past weekend, al Qaeda’s Abu Bakr al Baghdadi linked the conflict in Syria to AQI’s operations. He praised the Syrian rebels for their “courage” and “patience.”
President Obama had little patience when it came to Iraq. And there are consequences for his impatience.
Thomas Joscelyn is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.