A decorated Iraq War veteran says he and others who fought there are dismayed and angry that their hard-earned gains appear to be unraveling rapidly and he doubts whether President Obama even cares.
In the past several months, radical Islamist militants have been on the march in Iraq, securing the bulk of the western Anbar Province in January and just this week taking control of Mosul, the second largest city in Iraq. They are now on the march to Baghdad to take control of the country and have declared an end to the border between Syria and Iraq. Iraqis are fleeing Mosul and other cities by the hundreds of thousands. The Islamists are reportedly beheading some of those left behind.
The primary actor behind the instability is the Islamic State of Iraq and Al-Sham (ISIS), originally an Al Qaeda affiliate responsible for such heinous atrocities in Syria that even Al Qaeda has publicly distanced itself from the group.
The rapid progress of ISIS is particularly difficult to watch for veterans of the the Iraq War. Concerned Veterans for America CEO Pete Hegseth served in and around Samarra as a member of the U.S. Army’s 101st Airborne Division during the heat of the insurgency in 2005-2006. He says veterans are deeply frustrated.
“Universal, utter dismay and anger from veterans and those who’ve served to see what’s unfolding before our eyes in Iraq. It’s one of the greatest foreign policy failures in a long time. To see the progress that we made and then watch it be given away is dismaying. The implications strategically are vast. I mean, we were so close. We were creating the conditions for a stable and strong and freer Iraq, not a perfect one but one that would at least protect America’s interests and ensure radicals were not able to find safe harbor there,” said Hegseth.
According to Hegseth, the Obama administration was handed an increasingly stable situation in Iraq but the president had no interest in finishing the job.
“This administration was more obsessed with ending the war than winning it or being successful. As a result, now that we’ve turned the page and looked away from Iraq, and insurgents have taken advantage of it,” said Hegseth,
Meanwhile, the New York Times is reporting that Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki asked the United States to consider air strikes against ISIS as their progress became clear. The reports say the Obama administration refused those requests, concluding that once our troops left Iraq at the end of 2011 the United States was done fighting in Iraq.
Hegseth minced few words in response to those reports.
“I don’t like to make blunt statements like this but I don’t think the Obama administration cares. Their only interest in Iraq has been to end the war, turn the page and talk about how they don’t support it. At this point, there’s no will, there’s no appetite, there’s no strategic thinking to re-engage in Iraq, even though what’s happening right now is a re-establishment of an even more dangerous element than we saw in the Taliban era in Afghanistan. These are folks who want a space from which to form a state and then project jihad, not just regionally but around the world,” said Hegseth.
The turmoil in Iraq is the latest revelation to bring considerable frustration to our veterans, following on the heels of the Veterans Administration scandal and the controversial exchange of five key Taliban figures for U.S. Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, who was in Taliban custody.
Hegseth says Concerned Veterans for America is able to have a positive impact reversing the problems at the VA. He says there’s not much they can do but watch Taliban figures go free and Iraq fall further and further into the hands of radicals.
“When it comes to the Bergdahl swap or watching Iraq fade away, you feel helpless as you watch the things you’ve invested in that were so critical to America’s national security. How you finish things matters regardless of the merits of how they were started. It’s a rough time for veterans of those conflicts and I think has given me a better understanding of how Vietnam veterans felt when Saigon fell. Even though Baghdad hasn’t fallen, and neither has Kabul, our commitment is waning and the enemy remains on the march. And that’s a bad equation,” he said.
So what policy would Hegseth urge the administration to adopt now in Iraq?
“There are very few good options here. I think the best response is to project strength rhetorically about what we will and will not tolerate, and where we can, putting our thumb on the scales to support the good guys. That requires intelligence in Iraq that we don’t really have. Immediate support for the regime is important to make sure Baghdad does not fall, and then from there looking at ways we can push back advances the enemy has made,” said Hegseth.
The U.S. withdrawal in 2011 largely followed the timetable established in the latter days of the George W. Bush administration. The major difference is that the United States and Iraq failed to reach a Status of Forces Agreement to keep a residual American force in the country. Hegseth says that would have made a monumental difference in where Iraq stands right now.
“It’s less about the force and more about the signal that this is a country that will have continued emphasis and focus from the United States of America and an understanding in the enemies of that state that they were not going to have the ability to challenge the Iraqi military,” said Hegseth, who also believes the total U.S. departure exacerbated dysfunction within the Iraqi government and led to the Maliki government seeking to dominate the Sunni population rather than find common ground with it.
While Hegseth faults Obama administration policy for the current chaos in Iraq, arguments from elsewhere on the political spectrum suggest none of this would be happening if the U.S. never went into Iraq. They also assert that these same problems would have erupted whenever our residual forces left.
Hegseth says that line of reasoning is deeply flawed.
“I don’t grant that inevitably, down the line, it would descend into civil war. I don’t accept that. I just don’t. I think Iraq had the seeds for the foundation of representative government, not Jeffersonian, perfect, American-looking government but something where resolution was found through politics and not through the battlefield is possible,” said Hegseth.
“I think Iraq is somewhere where a stable outcome is more likely to happen than Afghanistan, which is the irony of Iraq being the bad war in everyone’s eyes and Afghanistan being the good war. At least Iraq has the seeds of a civil society: an educated populace, infrastructure, a history of central governance. All the things we’re seeing crumble before our eyes right now could have been shepherded through American commitment, but instead they’re slipping away,” said Hegseth.