The More Things Change, the More Iraq Stays the Same

The United States will come and go, but Iraq's divisions will remain.

Some of those watching the Tomahawk missiles lift off from the USS Porter on April 7, 2017, to strike Syria might have been reminded of similar scenes in January 1991, when the Tomahawk was chosen to open the battle against Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. The United States has been increasingly involved in Iraq since August of 1990. First, the United States helped eject Saddam from Kuwait, then its military forces policed no-fly zones and weapons of mass destruction in the 1990s. Finally, the U.S. military invaded Iraq in 2003. With the coming fall of Mosul and the defeat of Islamic State in Iraq, the United States will turn yet another page in its relationship with the Middle Eastern state, capping twenty-seven years of involvement.

Today’s U.S. military and security establishment was honed in Iraq. Whereas Colin Powell and Norman Schwarzkopf’s formative experiences were in Vietnam, Secretary of Defense James Mattis, National Security Advisor H. R. McMaster and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Joseph Dunford all earned their spurs in Iraq. In many ways the current U.S. Army is an army forged in the experiences of Iraq, fighting against a combination of conventional forces, insurgents and then a combination of the two.

The current U.S. Combined Joint Task Force, Operation Inherent Resolve, was designated in October 15, 2014, to reflect the “commitment of the U.S. and partner nations in the region and around the globe to eliminate the terrorist group ISIS and the threat they pose to Iraq, the region and the wider international community.” In March 2017, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson hosted the sixty-eight states that make up the Global Coalition to Counter-ISIS. Probably never before in history have so many states been part of such a large coalition to defeat one group. What prompted many of them to join the coalition was primarily the war against ISIS in Iraq and the threat ISIS posed to the region.

In speaking with U.S. commanders on the ground in northern Iraq, visiting their tactical assistance area and their training centers in the Kurdish region, it is clear they have fashioned a very clear mission based on past experience. U.S. Army Lt. Col. John Hawbaker, a commander in the 73rd Cavalry of the 82nd Airborne Division station south of Mosul, is involved with the advise-and-assist mission to support the Iraqi army in West Mosul. He has described an operation that involves training, indirect fire support, air strikes and intelligence sharing that will help the Iraqi Security Forces take back their country. Hawbaker served in Iraq in 2005–2006 and said he was surprised at how quickly ISIS was able to take over part of the country in 2014. “The ISF have victory in hand [today], it is inevitable, they know it and ISIS knows it,” he said in an early April conversation.

Hawbaker compared the battle against ISIS with the one the United States fought against Al Qaeda and other terrorists and insurgents, such as those led by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. “ISIS is the direct descendent of them,” but became a “much larger and conventional threat,” he said. In June 2015, Iraqi prime minister Haider Jawad Kadhim al-Abadi revealed that ISIS seized 2,300 Humvees and other armoured vehicles when the Iraqi army abandoned depots around Mosul. What that means is that the United States has had to spend some of the last two years destroying its own vehicles. I saw one such Humvee eviscerated by a U.S. air strike in Sinjar in December 2015.

ISIS has been degraded to less than nine hundred men in Mosul, according to U.S. estimates. It is struggling to hang on to other pockets of control in Sinjar, Hawija and Anbar. Now, the questions that remain are: what comes next and what was learned in the last three years? ISIS was able to exploit the power vacuum in Syria to spread across the border into the mostly Sunni Arab cities of northern and central Iraq, such as Tal Afar, Mosul, Ramadi, Tikrit and Fallujah. These, of course, are all names that U.S. forces remember well from after 2003. Mosul was the site of several offensives to root out insurgents; Tal Afar was supposedly the center of a successful clearing operation; and Fallujah is where American contractors were lynched in 2004. President Barack Obama declared an end to combat operations in 2010. By that time, around $49 billion had been appropriated for reconstruction, according to a report Curt Tarnoff submitted to the Congressional Research Service. The report noted that by April 2009 there were 645,000 Iraqi security forces (ISF), including thirteen infantry divisions, many of which received support in some way from the United States. The United States spent a large portion of its Iraq budget in 2007–2008 on training, but admitted only 67 percent of the ISF could execute and plan operations without assistance from the United States. Anthony Cordesman and Adam Mausner estimated in August 2009 that many of those who received coalition training—for example, between 30–60 percent of police—eventually left the security forces.