When I was an advisor in Iraq in 2012, I was implementing a fairy tale policy while Iraq was drifting toward civil war
- By Thomas E. RicksThomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at email@example.com.
Best Defense is in summer reruns. Here is an item that originally ran on March 3, 2016.
By Noah Smith
Best Defense Council of the Former Enlisted
I deployed to Iraq in 2012. On the way over, I was 27 years old and eager to fight. I headed into the international zone in the center of Baghdad. My mission to advise the Iraqi Special Operators to help them adjust to an environment in which they did not enjoy direct U.S. military support. We were their advocates and confidantes. I spent the next six months working with their commando school.
Little did I know I was heading into a deeply frustrating experience, perhaps the most confusing of my life.
It soon became clear to us that our mission would not succeed, because no matter what we did, Iraq was drifting toward civil war. Al Qaeda in Iraq was conducting assassinations and morphing into something powerful. ISIS was beginning to emerge.
Also, our Iraqi counterparts did not really trust us, and why should they? We had gone into Iraq, we had left, and now we were back — but for how long?
And so we had a hard time with the Iraqi government. We couldn’t get the amount of training ammo we needed for new recruits to be assessed and trained. Closed door conversations lent the strong suspicion that the government was stockpiling ammo as a preventative measure for the coming Shia — Sunni civil war.
Iran was on Iraq like white on rice. Mookie, Muqtada Al Sadr’, and his friends, Shiite militias like Asa’in Ahl Al-haq returned to Iraq, after exile in Iran. They quickly established a television channel and extended a welcome to Iranian sleeper cell surrogates. Every day, I felt as though my movements were observed and reported to Tehran.
Iraqis quietly expressed their concern to me that Iran was taking over Iraq, and no one was doing anything about it. The distrust of their comrades ran so deep that some would stop talking to me the second another soldier entered the room, regardless if the other one was a friend. Sunni soldiers gradually faded into the background, relatively unnoticed. Some went AWOL, supposedly because they preferred military prison to being in the regular Iraqi army. Almost all new recruits were Shia.
In the midst of all this, it was difficult for us to know what to do that would be in the best interest of our Iraq. Of course, there really is no such thing. It was never ours.
But it is now Tehran’s.
This is what it is like, I think, when policy is at odds with reality. The truth is that the strategy of going forward with a united Iraq was unrealistic in view of the political situation on the ground. We were not being realistic. The notion of a unified, non-sectarian Iraq was a fairy tale. My assignment was to implement that fairy tale and report progress.
That is an enormously demoralizing realization for any soldier. As I look back on it now, I think it was like working at the circus and showcasing a well-scripted performance whose source was vaguely known. It’s hard to fault any particular agency or department. My superiors were all part of the same circus, just different clowns in different outfits.
Why did we not do more to stop the trends pulling Iraq apart? I don’t know. But here is what I suspect: The American people don’t care, and neither do our politicians. So, decisions were made on the fly and without as deep of thought that was necessary. These are long term and complex challenges – they do and will affect our daily lives. It’s devastating to return home and find out the average doesn’t give a crap about these things that have shaped mine and many other’s adult lives.
But this is not just about me. It is about Iraq. The result of our miscalculations, intellectual laziness and errors is that we are putting Special Operators in a scenario to work with Shiite militias and help bomb their enemies. In other words, we are conducting air strikes for Iranian proxies.
This tells us that, contrary to what our bureaucratic institutions report, our Iraq foreign policy has failed. The Lion of Iran has inhaled Iraq. An adviser to the Iranian President Rouhani, Ali Younis boasted not long ago that, “Baghdad is now the Capitol of the Iranian empire.” The Iraqis trust the seasoned killers of ISIS more than they trust us. Why? Because we have left, come back, and may leave again — but the killers aren’t going anywhere. If ISIS wants to terrorize the local population, that’s fine with the Shiite militias.
My bottom line: I don’t know what to do but what we’re doing isn’t working. But what I do know is that we’re losing good people in Iraq and a nation we’ve spent over ten years and our own resources to help.
Noah Smith, a former Green Beret, is a business consultant in Washington, D.C. This represents his own views, which are not necessarily those of his former employers in the U.S. government. He holds the Special Operations chair in the Best Defense Council of the Former Enlisted. He can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org
Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons