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The Iraqi Question


With the supposed conclusion in hostilities in Iraq, Frederick Kagan, of the American Enterprise Institute, and Kimberly Kagan, president of the Institute for the Study of War, have outlined that we risk losing Iraq and how our early departure has not only seen an influx of sectarian violence, but an incremental rise in activity from Al-Qaeda in Iraq (AIQ).  This is part of a series of columns the couple have written concerning American policy in the region.  However, with the Middle East and much of North Africa erupting in a fury of anti-American protest and Mitt Romney slamming the president’s foreign policy – I’m sure we’ll see the Iraqi question present itself in the  upcoming presidential debates.

In terms of nation-building, Iraq is better than Afghanistan.  It has an existing infrastructure, most of the population is literate, and the people view Nouri al-Maliki as a legitimate leader.  Unlike Afghanistan – which has no infrastructure, a hopelessly corrupt government, and a population that is mostly illiterate.  An aspect that has impeded security forces/national army training.  Concerning corruption, we all know Karzai was stuffing ballots in the ’09 elections, but in the rural regions it’s overtly seen via the Afghan police forces.  The incidents of jailing without cause, beatings, sexual assault, drug peddling, and bribery are commonplace.  It’s a public relations nightmare since the police, in any country, are the intermediators between the government and the general population.  Given what has been done by the Afghan police – we shouldn’t be surprised that we’re not winning the hearts and minds of the people.

Both Iraq and Afghanistan are tribal societies, which will always be a point on contention concerning fostering political cooperation, but tensions in Iraq seemed to have been temporarily ameliorated during the Sunni Awakening.  This coincided with 100,000 new recruits of the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) being deployed into the field, which were able to bring Mosul, Sadr City, and Basra under government control.  Some of the ISF operations were executed with limited American ground support, with the exception of air cover and logistical information.

Basra was key since it’s Iraq’s only port.  It needs to be under government control. Mosul served as a critical nexus point for foreign fighters pouring into the country and housed a financial network that assisted the insurgency.  Sadr City contained weapons caches and the radical islamist elements, the Mahdi Army, needed to be rooted out.  It wasn’t easy.  Some 1,000 units of the fled during the Basra fight, but the ISF prevailed.  In the spirit of “clear, hold, and build,” Maliki announced a $100 million dollar reconstruction project for Mosul.

That was reported in the summer of 2008.  Iraq and met all but one of its benchmarks and George W. Bush’s surge – which was opposed by then-Senator Obama – was justified.  As Kagan wrote, ”the results have been dramatic. Enemy attacks fell from an average of 40 per day in the first week of May to between four and six per day in the following two weeks. Coalition forces have captured or killed the al-Qaeda emirs of Mosul, Southeast Mosul, Ninewah Province and much of their networks.”  Romney could say that with continued cooperation with the Maliki administration, a stronger Iraq could have emerged.

Now, Kagan, along with his wife Kimberly, penned another column in the current edition of The National Review that points out al-Qaeda’s resurgence in our absence.  this development running concurrently with Iran always watching and sectarian violence rising.

Violence is slowly rising again in Iraq. Measuring it precisely has always been difficult, and the end of intelligence-collection and -reporting by American military forces makes the task even harder. Nevertheless, two independent open-source databases show a significant increase in Iraqi-on-Iraqi violence since the departure of American forces in December 2011. Data from the Iraq Body Count website puts the number of average monthly security incidents from January through July (the last full month for which data are posted) at 369, compared with 328 for the same period in 2011 — an increase of 12.5 percent. And Olive Group, a private security firm that publishes detailed statistics of weekly violence in Iraq, reports that there were more than 120 security incidents per week for eight of 14 weeks from mid-June to the beginning of September. Incidents had exceeded 120 per week only three times in the previous 25 weeks (from December 2011 to mid-June 2012).

Additionally, “AQI’s front organization, the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI), has increased notably in the past few months, according to a report recently released by Sam Wyer at the Institute for the Study of War. Wyer found that ISI attacks killed at least 115 people in 20 cities in Iraq on July 23. A second wave of attacks, on August 16, killed more than 100 people in 19 cities. A third wave hit 18 cities on September 9, again killing more than 100.”

Concerning the resurgence of AIQ, Kagan wrote:

The resurrection of al-Qaeda [AQI] in Iraq is a consequence of America’s failure to negotiate a long-term military partnership of the kind that was envisioned when the Strategic Partnership Agreement was signed in 2008. U.S. enablers — combat troops in small numbers combined with the precision-strike capabilities of American aircraft and special forces — could have continued, in cooperation with Iraqi security forces, to keep the pressure on AQI. Their presence would also have sustained pressure on Maliki to keep Shiite militias in check.

Instead, the Iraqi political accommodation began to collapse as soon as American military forces departed. Maliki ordered Iraqi security forces to surround Hashemi’s compound on December 15 — the day that the Pentagon declared an official end to its mission. Maliki could not have done this had American trainers and advisers remained in Baghdad. Fears of a Sunni coup or a Shiite dictatorship could have been mitigated by the continued presence of American military forces, which all sides saw as impartial.

However, as the Syrian bloodbath continues, it should be noted that our withdrawal has prevented the Iraqis from protecting their airspace.  As such, “Iraq’s skies are a critical lifeline for the vicious regime of Bashar Assad, to whom the Iranian military is flying supplies, weapons, and advisers as he kills thousands of his own people in a desperate attempt to retain control of Syria. Iraq does not have air-defense systems. It does not have air-to-air fighters. Iranian aircraft that wish to pass through Iraqi airspace have only to do so, and the most Baghdad can do is lodge a protest.”

Mitt Romney could say that Obama’s withdrawal has been complicit in prolonging the bloodshed in Syria– as American fighters could have heavily curbed the amount of munitions and supplies that are propping up Assad.  While Obama may hit back and say that the Maliki administration demanded certain things which would have hindered American capabilities:

Michael Gordon paints a different picture in a recent New York Times article excerpted from The Endgame. As he explains it, the Obama administration did not begin negotiations for the extension of a military presence until June 2011, despite the well-known challenges of securing rapid deals in Iraq. The administration claims that it could not start negotiations before then because the Iraqi government had not yet been formed. But Gordon demonstrates how much the delay in the formation of that government resulted from the total failure of the Obama administration’s efforts to broker a political deal in Baghdad.

The president rarely injected himself into the negotiations and did next to nothing to, as Kagan put it, to smooth over tensions in the process.  Besides, the June 2011 announcement and an October meeting that same year – where Obama told Maliki we were out of there – the president remained in his ivory tower.  A low point in the annals American leadership.

The main point of contention in the talks was that “Obama wanted the Iraqi parliament to ratify whatever agreement was reached, despite the fact that Maliki had requested an executive agreement that would not be subject to legislative approval, and the lead U.S. negotiator, Brett McGurk, had recommended taking this approach. Maliki offered an executive agreement several times, Gordon notes, but the Obama administration stuck to its original demand.”

Kagan alludes that this intransigence was most likely due to the fact that Obama wanted out of the war and, unlike Gitmo, was going to honor the promise  to exit to appease the anti-war wing of the Democratic Party.  It’s intransigence that has cost lives.

While I don’t consider myself a neoconservative and consider their agenda a grand exercise in the overreach of American power –  we cannot deny the fact that a re-entrenchment of AIQ and the country being turned into an Iranian satellite would be disastrous.  While Iraq proved itself to have the potential to defend its territorial integrity, they’re still weaker than their ever belligerent neighbor to the east.  Forget Iran’s nuclear ambitions, Kagan wrote back in February of 2010 that”Iranian armed forces [have] violated Iraqi sovereignty on at least two occasions in 2009—U.S. forces shot down an Iranian drone in Iraqi territory in March 2009, and Iranian troops ostentatiously seized an Iraqi oil well in December 2009 as the Iraqis completed a round of international oil bids.”  The Obama administration did little, if anything, to forcefully counter these incursions.

Concerning Tehran’s politicking in Iraq, “Iranian officials, including President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki and Chairman of the Assembly of Experts Ayatollah Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, worked doggedly in 2009 to rebuild the coalition of the three major Iraqi Shiite parties that had run in 2005 as a bloc. That effort failed when Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki refused to join.”  Furthermore, ” the Iranians then actively but unsuccessfully lobbied for Iraq’s parliament to pass a closed-list election law in October 2009 in which the people could not choose particular candidates, seeking to increase their control of political parties and thus electoral outcomes.”  That’s not to say they’ve stopped trying to undermine the political leadership of Iraq. As we all know, Iran has the most to gain from a weak Iraq and that’s exactly what we gave them when we left prematurely.

As I mentioned above, I find nation-bulding to be a massive waste of American political and military resources.  As George Will noted, nations are organic entities that require generations to form.  The notion that American troops can accelerate the maturation process is absurd.  Yes, American troops provided a buffer that enabled socioeconomic development, but sectarian division remains deeply entrenched and the other obstacles inhibiting Iraq from developing into a strong state are going to be solve by the people – not American marines.  There is something to be said about keeping Hussein in power.  He kept Al-Qaeda out of his country and provided a counterbalance to Iran.  Yes, I’m for the pragmatic accommodation of dictators IF they serve our interests abroad.

However, given our situation, Iraq is more suitable for a favorable outcome in these nation building ventures than Afghanistan, but we should consider cutting down on these social engineering projects for the future.  Nevertheless, we cannot re-debate the past and we shouldn’t reignite the stale and sterile argument of why we invaded in March of 2003.  We went in – albeit on faulty intelligence – and we irresponsibly exited, leaving the country as ”an outlet for Iranian goods skirting sanctions. It is a launching pad for Iranian-backed terrorist groups looking for ‘plausible deniability.’ It is a critical line of communication between Tehran and its once-solid proxy in Damascus. It is again becoming a safe haven for one of the most lethal and determined al-Qaeda franchises in the world. That franchise, in fact, is now projecting terrorist operations into Syria in a way it was never before able to do. And Iraq is in danger once again of becoming a failed state.”  That’s the issue. Mr. President, is this ending the war responsibly as you’ve said – ad nauseum – during the 2008 campaign?

Geopolitically, Iran has always been close to Israel via Hezbollah since 1982 , but the weakening of Iraq via our exit has placed them closer.  Furthermore, the president has done nothing to curb Iranian encroachment other than offering some words of condemnation and threatening military action to prevent its nuclear capability.  That’s a rather effete response, which partially explains Netanyahu’s hesitancy to trust Obama.  I don’t blame him.

When foreign policy is discussed in the presidential debates, which will be featured on Oct. 11, 16, and 22, Mitt Romney needs to hit hard on the areas outlined by Kagan and others who’ve analyzed the tremendous vulnerability we have opened ourselves to by leaving Iraq.  Obama may have successfully placated the anti-war left of his coalition, but the potential consequences of leaving without an agreed security pact may see us re-invading the country, or at least sending in special forces, to rid ourselves of the re-entrenched Al-Qaeda elements.   In all, Kagan wrote that “it is essential for the U.S. to prevent al-Qaeda in Iraq from establishing a firm base from which to conduct and support terrorist activities throughout the region. It is equally important to prevent Iran from using Iraq as a staging area from which its militias can attack American interests and those of our regional allies. It is impossible to develop a strategy to contain Iran if Iraq is committed to a policy of supporting Tehran.”

This development, coupled with the Benghazi fiasco, are good points for Romney to highlight the lack of seriousness that is inherent in President Obama’s foreign policy.  He’s skipped almost half of his intelligence briefings and flew off to Vegas for a fundraiser one day after the Libyan attacks.  Are these the trademarks of a commander-in-chief?  Given that Romney has overtaken the president on the issue of  handling terrorism, the debates would be a good opportunity to expand on that claim.

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Matt Vespa

I'm a staunch Republican and a politics junkie who was recently the Executive Director for the Dauphin County Republican Committee in Harrisburg. Before that, I interned with the Republican Party of Pennsylvania in the summer of 2011 and Mary Pat Christie, First Lady of NJ, within the Office of the Governor of NJ in 2010. I was responsible for updating his personal contact list. My first political internship was with Tom Kean Jr's. U.S. Senate campaign in 2006.

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