How Obama snatched defeat from the jaws of victory in Iraq.
Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki visits Washington this week amid a political and security crisis in Iraq that is as bad as any that country has experienced since the worst days of the insurgency there in 2007 and 2008. Iraq is being lost. And while the Obama administration may seek to avoid blame, or shift blame yet again to the Bush administration, they should not be allowed to avoid their own responsibility for the ongoing deterioration of Iraq — or what to do about it now.
By nearly every indicator, the situation in Iraq has worsened dramatically since the beginning of the conflict in Syria and the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq in 2011. An analysis this month by the Washington Institute for Near East Policy captured the depths of the current crisis: "In 2010, the low point for the al-Qaeda effort in Iraq, car bombings declined to an average of 10 a month and multiple location attacks occurred only two or three times a year. In 2013, so far there has been an average of 68 car bombings a month and a multiple-location strike every 10 days." The United Nations estimates that nearly 7,000 civilians have been killed in Iraq this year alone. What’s worse, the deteriorating conflict in Syria has enabled al Qaeda in Iraq to transform into the larger and more lethal Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), which now has a major base for operations spanning both Iraq and Syria. It may just be a matter of time until al Qaeda seeks to use its new safe haven in these countries to launch attacks against U.S. interests.
We are prepared to assign blame for failures in today’s Iraq to the Bush administration where they are deserved. Indeed, from 2003-2006, we were among President Bush’s toughest and most outspoken critics on Iraq. To be sure, most of the blame lies with Iraqis themselves, especially Prime Minister Maliki and his allies, who have too often pursued a sectarian and authoritarian agenda that has alienated Kurdish Iraqis, disenfranchised Sunni Iraqis, and alienated many Shiite Iraqis who hold an inclusive, pluralistic, and democratic vision for their country. But the Obama administration cannot escape its own culpability for this enormous failure.
The "blame Bush" approach will not work this time. Whatever the Bush administration got wrong about Iraq, it got one very important thing right: The recognition in early 2007 that the conflict needed a different strategy, more troops and other resources, and different military leadership in the country. This strategy, known as "the Surge," helped create the political and security conditions upon which the Iraqi people could build. Additional U.S. troops secured the streets and provided a security mechanism through which the development of Iraq’s own military was accelerated. At the same time, Sunni tribal leaders began to fight back against the most radical elements of the insurgency who had threatened their traditional power structures. Known as the Awakening, or Sahwa, the Sunni tribal community turned against al Qaeda and, with the help of U.S. forces, degraded the insurgency. As al Qaeda was crushed and its attacks against Shiite Iraqi communities declined, the Maliki government and the Iraqi Security Forces were empowered to push back on Shiite militants groups and play a more constructive role in the country’s security. This is how Iraqis were able to escape the depths of civil war.
In addition to the military successes produced by the surge, an equally important component of this strategy was the political signal sent by President Bush to the Iraqi people that the United States was decisively committed to a successful outcome there. This promise of U.S. support guaranteed the political process and, in so doing, created the necessary political space for dialogue and consensus-building. It reassured Iraqi politicians that they would not be abandoned as they made difficult political decisions and guaranteed a framework by which all parties had a vested interest in building a stable, inclusive, and democratic Iraq.
Thus, as the Bush administration left office, Iraq was at long last heading in a more promising direction. Violence was down significantly; Sunnis were being reintegrated into the political system through a more equitable distribution of power and resources; some of Iraq’s most corrupt leaders have been pushed out; more moderate Shiite leadership had been empowered; and there was a real opportunity through continued U.S. support and engagement to strengthen a constitutional order in Iraq that was open to all Iraqis, regardless of sect or ethnicity.
Unfortunately, the Obama administration signaled a very different approach to Iraq when it took office in January 2009. It immediately pushed for a faster drawdown of U.S. forces than our commanders recommended. It appointed an ambassador to Iraq, Christopher Hill, who had no experience working on Iraq or serving anywhere in the Arab world. It adopted a hands-off approach to shaping Iraqi politics, which was demonstrated most vividly as it refused for months and months to take a hands-on approach with Iraqi leaders and help them broker the necessary compromises about their country’s future in the aftermath of the 2010 elections.
Nowhere was the Obama administration’s failure more pronounced than during the debate over whether to maintain a limited number of U.S. troops in Iraq beyond the 2011 expiration of the 2008 Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) — a debate in which we were actively involved. Here, too, the administration is quick to lay blame on others for the fact that they tried, and failed, to keep a limited presence of troops in Iraq. They have blamed the Bush administration, of course, for mandating the withdrawal in the 2008 SOFA. This does not ring true, however, because as former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has made clear, the plan all along was to renegotiate the agreement to allow for a continued presence of U.S. forces in Iraq. "Everybody believed," she said in 2011, "it would be better if there was some kind of residual force."
The Obama administration also blames Iraqis for failing to grant the necessary privileges and immunities for a U.S. force presence beyond 2011. This, too, is misleading because as we saw firsthand, the administration never undertook the necessary diplomatic effort to reach such an agreement. We traveled to Iraq in May 2011, only several months away from the deadline that our commanders had set for the beginning of the withdrawal. We met with all of the leaders of Iraq’s main political blocs, and we heard a common message during all of these private conversations: Iraqi leaders recognized that it was in their country’s interest to maintain a limited number of U.S. troops to continue training and assisting Iraqi Security Forces beyond 2011. But when we asked Ambassador Jim Jeffrey and the Commander of U.S. Forces in Iraq Lloyd Austin what tasks U.S. troops remaining in Iraq would perform and how many the administration sought to maintain, they could not tell us or the Iraqis — the White House still had not made a decision.
It went on like this for the next few months. By August 2011, the leaders of Iraq’s main political blocs joined together and stated that they were prepared to enter negotiations to keep some U.S. troops in Iraq. An entire month passed and still the White House made no decision. All the while during this internal deliberation, as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Martin Dempsey later testified before the Senate Armed Services Committee, the size of a potential U.S. force presence kept "cascading" down from upwards of 16,000 to an eventual low of less than 3,000. By that point, the force would be able to do little more than protect itself, and Prime Minister Maliki and other Iraqi leaders realized that the political cost of accepting this proposal was not worth the benefit.
To blame this failure entirely on the Iraqis is convenient, but it misses the real point. The reason to keep around 10,000-15,000 U.S. forces in Iraq was not for the sake of Iraq alone; it was first and foremost in our national security interest to continue training and advising Iraqi forces and to maintain greater U.S. influence in Iraq. That core principle should have driven a very different U.S. approach to the SOFA diplomacy. The Obama administration should have recognized that, after years of brutal conflict, Iraqi leaders still lacked trust in one another, and a strong U.S. role was required to help Iraqis broker their most politically sensitive decisions. For this reason, the administration should have determined what tasks and troop numbers were in the national interest to maintain in Iraq and done so with ample time to engage with Iraqis at the highest levels of the U.S. government to shape political conditions in Baghdad to achieve our goal.
We focus on this failure not because U.S. troops would have made a decisive difference in Iraq by engaging in unilateral combat operations against al-Qaeda and other threats to Iraq’s stability. By 2011, U.S. forces were no longer in Iraqi cities or engaged in security operations. However, a residual U.S. troop presence could have assisted Iraqi forces in their continued fight against al Qaeda. It could have provided a platform for greater diplomatic engagement and intelligence cooperation with our Iraqi partners. It could have made Iranian leaders think twice about using Iraqi airspace to transit military assistance to Assad and his forces in Syria. And most importantly, it could have maintained the significant diplomatic influence that the United States still possessed in Iraq — influence that had been, and still was, essential in guaranteeing Iraq’s nascent political system, reassuring Iraqi leaders that they could resolve their differences peacefully and politically despite their mistrust of one another, and checking the authoritarian and sectarian tendencies of Prime Minister Maliki and his allies.
Since the withdrawal of U.S. forces and the beginning of the conflict in Syria in 2011, Al Qaeda is on the rise again in Iraq. It now possesses a safe haven that spans Iraqi and Syrian territory and has grown into the larger and more lethal Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS). ISIS is recruiting foreign fighters from across the Middle East. And it is accelerating its pace of attacks and mounting over 40 mass-casualty attacks per month in regular multi-city strikes. A stark indication of al Qaeda’s resurgence in Iraq came on July 21, 2013, when the group attacked prisons at Abu Ghraib and Taji. Although the Taji attack failed, the attacks on Abu Ghraib freed over 800 prisoners, including several hundred purported al Qaeda members. This successful jailbreak was the culmination of a well-organized, year-long campaign that highlights al Qaeda’s regenerated capacity in Iraq.
Unfortunately, recent attempts by Prime Minister Maliki and his allies in the Iraqi government to gradually consolidate power are contributing to the rise in violence. Following the 2010 elections, Maliki greatly expanded his control over many of Iraq’s civilian institutions, including the judiciary and independent bodies such as the elections commission, central bank, and the anti-corruption office. Maliki is thus managing to subvert the system of checks and balances that was intended in the Iraqi constitution. His growing influence over supposedly independent institutions has tarnished the legitimacy and efficacy of these bodies, particularly the judiciary and the parliament. For its part, the Council of Representatives has not been an effective check on executive authorities. The parliament’s internal dysfunction, combined with Maliki’s own efforts to undermine the body, has limited its oversight ability. This has meant that political and military power is now highly centralized in Maliki’s personal office. The national unity government that was formed in the wake of the 2010 parliamentary elections has given way to a de-facto majoritarian government in which Maliki has a monopoly over state institutions.
As the Sunni minority in Iraq is increasingly excluded from government and as Prime Minister Maliki has pursued politicized legal actions against key Sunni leaders, relations between the Shiite-dominated government in Baghdad and the Sunni-dominated provinces of Iraq have deteriorated. The denial of opportunities for Sunni Iraqis to advance their interests through politics is fueling radicalization within these communities. Many Sunni Iraqis have been protesting Maliki’s consolidation of power since early 2012; but, as protests have failed to achieve sufficient results, there is growing support for a wider insurgency. This could prove much more dangerous than AQI as it marks a sea change in public opinion amongst many Sunnis. Although some protest leaders have called for moderation and sought to negotiate with Maliki’s government, many more are issuing a call to arms in both self-defense and opposition to the government.
At the same time, the growing authoritarian and sectarian tendencies of the Maliki government are also alienating the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) and Kurdish Iraqi communities. The KRG is a long-standing friend of the United States and it is supporting a dramatic economic transformation of Iraqi Kurdistan, and it recently oversaw credible elections last month for the Kurdish regional parliament. The Maliki government’s mishandling of Iraqi politics and the related rise in violence and resurgence of al Qaeda, are creating a political context in Iraq that makes it more difficult for Kurdish leaders to reach important and long-needed agreements with Baghdad, including on hydrocarbon revenue sharing and territorial disputes.
Today, Iraq is nearing a breaking point as the combination of internal tensions and external pressures generated by the conflict in Syria threaten Iraq’s stability. There is still a chance for Iraqis to halt their country’s downward spiral, and Prime Minister Maliki’s visit to Washington is an important opportunity for the Obama administration to affirm that Iraq is a top priority. But in order to be successful, we need to acknowledge the political sources of Iraq’s current security crisis.
Prime Minister Maliki will likely frame Iraq’s rising violence as primarily a security and terrorism problem. That is certainly true in part, and we are urging the Obama administration to step up our counterterrorism support for our Iraqi partners, especially intelligence sharing. This is necessary but not sufficient to restore stability to Iraq. Addressing what is chiefly a political issue through tougher security measures will only worsen the situation, as the United States learned through our own experience in Iraq. The administration should be careful about promising more security assistance without guarantees of complementary political reform as part of a comprehensive Iraqi strategy that can bring lasting peace and stability to the country.
Such a strategy should unite Iraqis of every sect and ethnicity in a reformed constitutional order based on the rule of law, which can give Iraqis a real stake in their nation’s progress, marginalize al Qaeda in Iraq and other violent extremists, and bring lasting peace to the country. To be effective, an Iraqi political strategy should involve sharing greater national power and revenue with Sunni Iraqis, reconciling with Sunni leaders, and ending de-Baathification and other policies of blanket retribution. It should include agreements with the Kurdistan Regional Government to share hydrocarbon revenues and resolve territorial disputes. And it requires a clear commitment that the elections scheduled for next year will happen freely, fairly, and inclusively in all parts of Iraq, and that the necessary preparations will be taken.
While President Obama’s policies have certainly curtailed U.S. influence in Iraq, our nation has enduring national security interests in Iraq that cannot be diminished. The Obama administration inherited a policy in Iraq that was succeeding in driving down levels of violence, significantly degrading al Qaeda in Iraq, and building a constitutional order in which differences could be resolved peacefully and politically. Five years later, Iraq is beset by escalating levels of violence, growing political polarization, and a resurgent al Qaeda in Iraq and Syria that now possesses a base of operations in the heart of the Middle East. The current failure in Iraq has unfolded on the Obama administration’s watch, and it is the president’s responsibility to devise a strategy to address these serious national security challenges — for it is folly to believe that the growing failure in Iraq will not ultimately impact the United States. One only need look at U.S. policy toward Afghanistan in the 1990s to understand the problems inherent to such wishful thinking.
The United States fought too hard and sacrificed and invested too much to allow Iraq to descend into violence once again. We owe it to the brave Americans who fought and lost their lives to do everything we can to ensure the realization of the goals in Iraq that they fought so hard to achieve. No one wants the Obama administration’s legacy in Iraq to be one of squandering our many hard-won gains there but, at present, that is the unfortunate reality it is facing.
Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) is chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee.