In the three years since President Barack Obama withdrew American troops from Iraq, it has become undeniably clear that the billions of dollars expended and the thousands of military lives lost or irreparably damaged in our efforts to bring freedom and stability to the desperate Iraqi people may have all been for naught.
As someone who has served as an Army officer for over two decades, this is a devastating sentence to write. However, it is a harsh reality that must be acknowledged and addressed. As a lifelong Georgian, this reality is felt perhaps most bitterly in my home state. I first deployed to the Middle East in April 2002 in support of combat operations in Afghanistan (Operation Anaconda) and was based out of Camp Doha, Kuwait. A full three-quarters of the troops I served with there were from the Peach State including two brigades of the 3rd Infantry Division based in Ft. Stewart and Fort Benning, Georgia. I witnessed the sons and daughters of Georgia serve in Iraq with great distinction and valor. Lamentably, all too many had to make the ultimate sacrifice for their country. According to iCausalties.org, 1,003 Georgians were killed or injured in Iraq from 2003 until the withdrawal in 2011.
Due in part to the service of these Georgians, by the conclusion of President George W. Bush’s second term U.S. forces and their allies had brought freedom and stability to Iraq with a coalition government that included Sunnis, Shiites, and Kurds. In fact, President Obama touted our efforts in Iraq as a success. At that point, Obama’s duty was, in large part, to help our forces maintain these tremendous gains by continuing to have a stabilizing presence in Iraq, much like we did in post-war Germany, Japan, and Korea. However, in this mission, his administration utterly failed.
The genesis of the current anarchy in Iraq was our failure to successfully negotiate a status of forces agreement (SOFA) with the coalition government of Iraq led by Prime Minister Nouri al-Malaki. The president justified this failure by arguing that the Iraqis refused to relinquish the right to prosecute American troops. Without a SOFA in place, our troops left Iraq. Malaki knew his fragile government and nation could not hold on without the support of a powerful external ally. He unfortunately found one in Iran, a nation, like Iraq, that is majority Shiite Muslim.
It is most assuredly not a coincidence that almost immediately after the withdrawal of American troops in December 2011, Malaki ordered the arrest of Sunni Vice President Tariq al-Hashimi on trumped-up charges of orchestrating insurgent terrorist attacks against the government. Upon the arrest of their leader, factions of the long-suffering Sunni minority reacted with violence. When Malaki— perhaps with Iranian encouragement or even insistence— called on Iraqi Shiites to respond in kind to “defend” the country, a sectarian civil war erupted. It rages to this day.
Understanding the full scope of our current failures in Iraq requires widening one’s gaze beyond that country, for Iraq’s descent into chaos is directly linked to the Obama
administration’s embarrassing, inexcusable blunders in Syria. He watched passively as Russian arms, Iranian advisors, and Hezbollah mercenaries aided the regime of Bashar al-Assad as it brazenly crossed the President’s “red-line” and persisted in using nerve gas against the Syrian people. In addition to allowing Assad’s barbarism to continue unchecked, the administration’s refusal to aid the secular, moderate rebels assured the rise to power in Syria of an enemy of almost unfathomable evil, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, known as ISIL or ISIS. This vicious jihadist group has battled both Assad’s forces and those of the moderate rebels to gain control of large swathes of Syria and is also spearheading the violence in Iraq, invited there by hard-line Sunni insurgents.
In its infancy, ISIS had ties to the infamous terrorist group al-Qaeda, but recently al-Qaeda released a statement denouncing ISIS for being too extreme and violent. If a group is too hardcore for the organization responsible for the 9/11 attacks, what they must be capable of almost defies imagination.
In fact, we recently learned that the President began being briefed on the growing danger of ISIS more than a year ago. Without the leadership of American troops, the Iraqi military and police forces have been almost powerless to quell the ISIS-led insurgency. Indeed, in January of this year, the insurgents sacked the city of Fallujah and then earlier this summer, they seized control of the strategic northern Iraqi city of Mosul. Violent extremists now freely roam the streets of two cities once trumpeted as hallmarks of the American counterinsurgency efforts. And then, ISIS captured Qaraqosh, the country’s largest Christian city, telling its inhabitants to “leave, convert or die.”
With all due respect to the president, as Iraq is consumed by a fire of fanaticism, the responsibility for whatever horrors occur there— and elsewhere in the Middle East, as ISIS’s influence continues to expand— will rest on his shoulders. For eight years, American troops fought, bled, and died to bring freedom and hope to Iraq. But under ISIS’s control, not only have the troops’ gains been ceded, but in a very real sense, Iraq may be on a path that will leave it worse off than it was even under Saddam Hussein.
All that was required of the president to solidify peace and security in Iraq was his commitment to stay the course and let the finest fighting force in the world finish the job. Yet, he could not muster the resolve even for this. We can let history serve as the final arbiter of that question. But what must be confronted here and now is that, in damning Iraq to ISIS (whatever his reasons for doing so), President Obama also turned his back on our troops, including those from my home state.