The Complex

Top Marine Commander: Iraq Chaos Shows Costs of U.S. Withdrawal

Stepping into an intensifying political debate, the head of the Marine Corps said the United States doesn’t have the luxury of isolationism and said Iraq’s deterioration may have been prevented if Washington had maintained a larger U.S. presence there. The comments from Gen. James Amos, the outgoing commandant of the Marine Corps., come amid sharp ...

Alex Wong/Getty Images
Alex Wong/Getty Images

Stepping into an intensifying political debate, the head of the Marine Corps said the United States doesn’t have the luxury of isolationism and said Iraq’s deterioration may have been prevented if Washington had maintained a larger U.S. presence there.

The comments from Gen. James Amos, the outgoing commandant of the Marine Corps., come amid sharp divides over who bears responsibility for the takeover of much of Iraq by Islamist militants and whether the United States should pull back from its leadership role on the world stage.

Republican critics of Barack Obama’s administration argue that the White House’s decision to withdraw all U.S. combat troops from Iraq at the end of 2011 cleared the way for Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, a hard-line Shiite, to consolidate power and drive the country’s Sunni minority into the arms of militants from the Islamic State, formerly known as ISIS, which has conquered broad swaths of central Iraq. The critics also argue that removing all U.S. forces allowed the Iraqi military’s fighting capabilities to wither so significantly than many troops abandoned their posts and fled when ISIS militants attacked, leaving the armed group with large caches of advanced and U.S.-provided weaponry.

At the same time, the Republican Party itself has been riven by a fierce internal debate about whether the United States should maintain the type of muscular foreign policy that has characterized the party for decades or adopt a less interventionist approach. The dispute has pitted two presumed 2016 presidential candidates against each other, with Texas Gov. Rick Perry deriding Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, the prime proponent of a more cautious foreign policy, as an isolationist whose views pose dangerous risks to U.S. national security. Paul, in turn, has said that Perry’s approach would leave the United States enmeshed in long, messy wars like Afghanistan.

Amos, who is scheduled to retire this fall, offered strong views on both debates. On Iraq, Amos said he believes that the ISIS takeover of central Iraq — and the growing political fissures between Maliki and the country’s embattled Sunni minority — may have been avoided if the United States hadn’t completely withdrawn from the country in 2011.

"I have a hard time believing that had we been there, and worked with the government, and worked with parliament, and worked with the minister of defense, the minister of interior, I don’t think we’d be in the same shape we’re in today," Amos said during an event at the Brookings Institution.

Amos also had strong words for those who want the United States to pull back from its commitments and responsibilities around the globe.

"We may think we’re done with all of these nasty, thorny, tacky little things that are going on around the world — and I’d argue that if you’re in that nation, it’s not a tacky, little thing for you. We may think we’re done with them, but they’re not done with us," Amos said.

He said ISIS’s capture of Anbar province, a former insurgent stronghold that had been cleared by U.S. Marines at great cost, was painful for him both personally and professionally.

"It breaks our hearts," Amos said, while quickly rattling off statistics showing what the war in Iraq cost the Marine Corps: 852 killed with another 8,500 injured.

He said that when the Marines left Anbar in 2010, handing operations over to the U.S. Army, they felt good about what they’d accomplished there.

"They believed that they’d made a difference," Amos said.

Now, the Islamic State controls Fallujah and parts of Ramadi, both cities where the Marine Corps spent years fighting and bleeding.

Marines are now in the midst of their withdrawal from Afghanistan’s Helmand province, which holds a similar importance to them as Anbar did in Iraq, and it remains uncertain whether the Afghan security forces will be able to hold off Taliban attacks.

Amos said he is confident in the Afghan security forces’ ability to fend off the Taliban, but he warned that Afghanistan could collapse like Iraq if the United States pulls out "lock, stock, and barrel."

"There’s no question that [the Afghan security forces] would not be able to hold," Amos said.

Still, Amos said he’s optimistic about Afghanistan because the administration has agreed to keep 9,800 U.S. troops there until the end of 2015. In May, Obama announced that half of those troops will remain in Afghanistan until 2016. Beyond that, a small military presence will remain at the U.S. Embassy in Kabul.

"I think now that the president has made the decision to leave 9,800, that there will be continued support for those great warriors and leaders," Amos said about the Afghan security forces.

The four-star rarely shies away from expressing his opinion, even when it contradicts the official White House or Pentagon position. When the Obama administration was pushing to repeal "don’t ask don’t tell," which forbade gays from serving openly in the military, Amos warned that doing so could have detrimental effects on the Marines’ ability to fight. He later embraced the policy change and said his previous concerns were unfounded.

This year, the Pentagon recommended scaling back funding for military commissaries, reducing the average shopper’s savings from 30 percent to 10 percent. The Joint Chiefs have defended the proposal on Capitol Hill, but Amos won’t get behind it. At Brookings on Tuesday, Amos reiterated his opposition to the idea.

Kate Brannen is deputy managing editor at Just Security and a contributor to Foreign Policy, where she previously worked as a senior reporter. Twitter: @K8brannen

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