Today, as the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) continues its drive toward Baghdad with American-built Humvees captured from fleeing Iraqi Army units, the US Embassy is “temporarily relocating” staff. This, after Tikrit, the birthplace of Saddam Hussein, and Mosul, the second-largest city in Iraq, fell to ISIS last week.
These things are beyond troubling — but they were also predictable.
ISIS now controls territory from Aleppo, Syria across Iraq’s western Anbar province down to the Sunni Triangle, less than 100 miles from Baghdad. ISIS is seeking to establish in this region an Islamic caliphate that recognizes only Sharia law.
The terrorist organization was once considered an “affiliate” of al Qaeda, but parted ways with Osama bin Laden’s successor, Aymann al-Zawahiri, over ISIS brutality in Syria. That Zawahiri thinks a Jihadist terrorist group is too violent says something about the levels of malevolence and extremism ISIS embraces. Most people can only assume Baghdadi’s next move will be to advance on Baghdad. And the Sunni vs. Shia sectarian violence engulfing the region will continue to escalate.
This past January, when al Qaeda returned to Fallujah and Ramadi, it was barely reported in US media — few people in the US, after all, still cared about Iraq. In 2011, when President Barack Obama announced that “the death of bin Laden marks the most significant achievement to date in our nation’s effort to defeat al Qaeda,” most Americans assumed al Qaeda and its allies were all but defeated and on the run. Iraq and Afghanistan veterans knew better.
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Iraq today is once again seeing the kind of violence unleashed upon it during the height of the insurgency that began in 2004. Within a year of Saddam’s rapid fall from power after the US-led invasion in 2003, insurgent forces were operating at will in many of Iraq’s most strategically important cities. Street-to-street battles reminiscent of fighting in World War II took place in cities like Najaf, Ramadi, and Fallujah.
Najaf saw Marines fighting in a 1,000-year-old cemetery, man-to-man, headstone to headstone, against the Mahdi Militia. During the Battle of Fallujah I & II, Marines and Army soldiers encountered some of the heaviest urban combat American forces had seen since the Vietnam War's Battle of Hue City. The Battle of Ramadi was won by deploying Special Operations Forces (SOF) alongside conventional troops in block-by-block fighting under one command, appropriately named Task Force Band of Brothers.
These urban battles wiped out major pockets of al Qaeda resistance, but left fragile and tenuous gains for subsequently deployed Marines and Army soldiers who encountered snipers and improvised explosive devices on daily patrols.
By 2006, a classified intelligence report found Anbar province all but lost amid "a growing concern that Iraq may be falling apart.” Those serving in Iraq at the time knew the leaked report was merely ground truth. But Army General David Petraeus and Marine General James Mattis, who both rewrote the US manual on Counter-Insurgency (COIN), had a strategy in mind to turn the tide of battle in Iraq. Petraeus asked for and received a surge of US troops and resources to implement the COIN doctrine. Then-President George W. Bush doubled down on these additional troops because he believed “a stable and secure Iraq” was vital to US national security interests.
Two years later, the surge had proven largely successful, in no small measure because of both the new COIN strategy and the “Anbar Awakening,” in which many Iraqi Sunni tribes rejected al Qaeda's violent fundamentalist ideology and joined with US forces to combat a mutual foe. Embracing the Awakening was not an obvious course of action for many military commanders, as it meant forming alliances with insurgent forces that had for years been fighting and killing Americans. Less well known but equally effective in turning the situation around in Iraq were the increased capabilities of Joint Special Operations Command under General Stanley McChrystal, who greatly expanded the campaign to capture or kill high-value targets from the dwindling al Qaeda leadership ranks, including the leader of al Qaeda in Iraq, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.
By 2010, Mosul was the site of al Qaeda in Iraq's defiant “last stand," and where a joint US and Iraqi special operations team killed the organization's leader, Abu Khalaf. As the Sunday Times wrote, the operation was "the culmination of one of the most spectacular victories of the war on terror." A terrorist network that once numbered more than 12,000, with strongholds in the west and central regions of Iraq, had in two years been reduced to a mere 1,200 fighters, backed against the wall in the northern city of Mosul.
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The surge effectively expired at midnight on December 31, 2011 when the original Status of Forces Agreement expired. But as history has taught us, successful postwar nation building takes decades — as it did in Germany, Japan, and South Korea — and often requires the continuous presence of US troops for just as long. In post–World War II Germany and Japan, and in South Korea following the 1953 armistice, the US established military bases that exist to this day. Today, Germany is the strongest economy in Europe, and Japan and Korea have long driven industry and innovation in Asia. The price of freedom and longterm stability in the world is an enduring commitment to political, economic, and military obligations. This history lesson was lost on our current national security team.
The Obama Administration and the Iraqi Government failed to agree to terms that would have "maintained several thousand US troops to train Iraq security forces.” Reportedly, Iraqi officials wanted troops to stay but refused to give them immunity from Iraqi prosecution for war crimes — a deal breaker for the Obama Administration. Ultimately, the diplomats in Baghdad and Washington were unable to ensure the hard-fought gains in Iraq during eight years of combat were not squandered. US Marines, Army Infantry and Special Operations Forces paid a heavy price only to watch American and Iraqi politicians fall short of their obligations to ensure lasting security and stability.
Vietnam-era vets often echoed a common refrain: “We were winning the war where I served and when I left.” America's generation of Iraqi combat veterans feels much the same way.
Dan O'Shea is a former Navy SEAL officer who served in both Iraq and Afghanistan. He served as the coordinator for the Hostage Working Group at US Embassy Baghdad from 2004-2006 and returned to Iraq in 2007 and 2010 as a military advisor and trainer.
Photo via US Army