Not Wanted: A Permanent U.S. Presence in Iraq

U.S. and Iraqi artillerymen fire 105-millimeter howitzers during live-fire training. Flickr/U.S. Army

It's time for the Iraqis to take control of their own nation.

If the American people liked the Iraq War, then they will love a permanent U.S. military presence in that dysfunctional state. Apparently, the Trump administration is considering that possibility.

Gen. Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said during a February 23 interview at the Brookings Institution in Washington, DC: “We have, as has NATO, begun a dialogue about a long-term commitment to grow the capacity, maintain the capacity of Iraqi Security Forces, but no decisions have yet been made yet.” Doing so would be an awful start for President Donald Trump.

Defense Secretary James Mattis suggested the triumph of hope over experience when he declared that “the Iraqi people, the Iraqi military and the Iraqi political leadership recognize what they’re up against and the value of the coalition and the partnership, in particular with the United States.” He added: “I imagine we’ll be in this fight for a while and we’ll stand by each other.”

Actually, it would be hard for Iraq to stand by America, since the Iraqi state has been in crisis for years. Moreover, the mere possibility of Washington, DC taking on a permanent role in Iraq is a dramatic acknowledgement of past failure.

The United States first turned that nation into a military target almost twenty-six years ago after the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait. But Washington left Saddam Hussein in power. In 2003, the Bush administration invaded to oust him. American officials imagined the Iraqi people would warmly welcome their new overlords as the latter “drained the swamp,” created a pro-Western satellite, established permanent military bases and placed American-paid expatriates at the head of the new government. Iraq would become yet another military outpost enforcing U.S. military hegemony.

It didn’t work out that way. The occupation’s mistakes were many and major. Noted the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction: “The security challenges associated with post-war rehabilitation went far beyond the wave of looting that immediately followed Saddam’s fall. They were seeded by long-standing sectarian and ethnic differences, the democratic ascent of Iraq’s majority Shia population, and a Sunni-fomented insurgency.” Sectarian conflict erupted killing hundreds of thousands and displacing millions of Iraqis.

It isn’t obvious that anything could have prevented the rise of sectarian governance and war. The quaint belief that under American tutelage ethnic, political and religious conflicts would fade away and Iraqis would come together to sing Kumbaya always was a fantasy. And despite the gratitude Iraqis were supposed to feel for their liberation, the Baghdad government refused to grant American soldiers immunity as part of a status-of-forces agreement, necessary for a continuing occupation.

In fact, an ongoing U.S. military presence would not have solved Iraq’s problems; rather, American troops would have been targets for radical Shia and Sunnis alike. While Republicans blamed Barack Obama for abandoning Iraq, it was the Iraqis who said no. President Obama only followed Republican George W. Bush’s withdrawal schedule.

There’s no reason to believe that renewed U.S. involvement will create an honest, effective, nonsectarian government. Nor to think that ongoing payments and training will create a dramatically better and more competent military and other security forces. We’ve already seen the movie and the ending was the Islamic State taking over Anbar, Fallujah, Mosul, Ramadi and much more. In some cases, the Iraqi forces refused to fight. That’s not going to change if Washington sticks around longer.

It’s not as if the United States hasn’t tried to develop a capable, serious Iraqi military. The Bush and Obama administrations devoted more than $25 billion to the task. The money went to construct and renovate bases, train troops, provide logistical support, assist the police, provide supplies, create a counterterrorism force and more. The programs were many and expensive.

Baghdad also spent generously on the best American weapons—including F-16 fighters, which proved of no practical use defending against ISIS—many of which ended up in insurgent hands. Ironically, the United States unintentionally became the chief armorer of the Islamic State. But no matter, explained Leah Schulz of the Security Assistance Monitor: “Following the collapse of Iraq’s fighting force, the United States is again trying to train and equip the Iraqi military to effectively defeat a terrorist group.”

After the Iraqis tossed away American-supplied weapons, on top of $1.6 billion in military aid, Washington extended $2.7 billion in credit so that Baghdad could purchase more arms. All told, noted Schulz, “the United States has already provided Iraq’s security forces over 1,200 military vehicles, approximately 20,000 small arms and heavy weapons, 2,000 additional AT-4 anti-tank weapons and nearly 300 counter improvised explosive device equipment and more than 2,000 Iraqi Kurdish forces received U.S. military training.”

The State Department has expressed its charming commitment “to helping Iraq improve security, maintain sovereignty, and push back against terrorism, most recently ISIL.” But the principle problem in Iraq is lack of motivation, not inadequate U.S. support.

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