Somewhere around various parts of the world, reassigned US military commanders must be shaking their heads at the events overtaking Fallujah, Iraq.
Few cities outside Baghdad gave coalition forces more headaches during the war’s rollout: controversial shootings against Iraqi citizens, Blackwater Bridge, white phosphorous and the coalescing of a Sunni insurgency. Multiple security operations left Fallujah in ruins. Eventually, over three years later, US forces would transfer control of the city to Iraqi police and military forces, heralding what officials believed to be the fruits of General David Petraeus’s counterinsurgency model.
Now Washington must watch, nearly helplessly, as al-Qaeda in Iraq makes its own play on the city.
US military officials and Republican Senators such as South Carolina’s Lindsey Graham kept no secret of their expectations following the withdrawal of US combat troops in December 2011. Unwilling to relinquish its foothold after spilling so much blood and treasure, the Pentagon housed designs of a long-term buffer to neutralize the hegemonic influence of neighboring Iran and maintain a regional presence in the 21st century. However US military officials had good cause to expect a resurgence from al-Qaeda affiliates, given the group’s intention to out-wait the US deadline and capitalize on Iraq’s unstable political environment, and anxieties further heightened once Syria’s crisis began spilling across the border in 2012.
Graham’s politicized rhetoric similarly contained very real fear.
“If we’re not smart enough to work with the Iraqis, to have 10-15,000 American troops in Iraq in 2012, Iraq could go to hell,” he warned in April 2011. “This is a defining moment in the future of Iraq. And the Obama administration has the wrong strategy in Libya, and in my view they’re going down the wrong road when it comes to Iraq.”
One doesn’t have to imagine his feelings now as members of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) rally into Fallujah, hoist their flags, steal military equipment, dig into the city’s dirt and threaten its citizens.
"While many Iraqis are responsible for this strategic disaster, the administration cannot escape its share of the blame," read his latest joint-statement with Senator John McCain. "When President Obama withdrew all US forces… over the objections of our military leaders and commanders on the ground, many of us predicted that the vacuum would be filled by America’s enemies and would emerge as a threat to US national security interests. Sadly, that reality is now clearer than ever."
Perhaps the natural oddity of war is responsible for this brush with Fallujah’s déjà vu, or perhaps the underlying dynamics of insurgency and counterinsurgency have created parallel forces at work. Although US military planners did expect a renewal in Iraq’s violence following the withdrawal of combat forces, understanding the exact level of their expectations is more difficult. Did they expect sporadic, low-intensity violence or the type of escalation that doubled Iraqi casualties between 2012 and 2013, from 4,500 to over 9,000? Did they anticipate al-Qaeda members returning or steering away from Afghanistan, Pakistan, Somalia, Yemen and other hotspots that US forces and drones pounded between 2008 and 2012? How could they foresee al-Qaeda ballooning from Syria’s flames?
This chain reaction must have been expected in some form, but the shift in emphasis to Afghanistan’s surge leaves the door open to greater uncertainty. In terms of Iraq, the simultaneous decline in nonmilitary attention triggers a number of concerns regarding the Obama administration’s post-withdrawal strategy. Rather than double down in the area that Washington could still utilize soft power, the administration consumed itself with Afghanistan and lost momentum in the complicated phases that both insurgency and counterinsurgency evolve through. Insurgencies are capable of transforming back and forth between life stages, from single cells to advanced networks to near death, and this process becomes especially fluid in a decentralized terrorist network.
Rarely do they end conclusively.
Counterinsurgencies also evolve across the military spectrum, and the Obama administration never applied enough diplomatic weight to compensate for the withdrawal of US forces. Interfering with Iraqi politics isn’t clean work, but the Obama administration would wait too long to broker the Irbil Agreement following Iraq’s hotly contested parliamentary election in March 2010. The deal (finalized in November) gave incumbent Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki a second term, at least somewhat out of expedient continuation, and in return earmarked a position of national security to Ayad Allawi, whose Iraqiya list netted two more seats that al-Maliki’s State of Law Coalition. Except al-Maliki failed to uphold his agreement with Allawi, touching off a renewed cycle of political upheaval and a partial Sunni boycott, and al-Maliki was never held accountable for his actions.
President Obama would personally contribute to the feud by welcoming al-Maliki to the White House in December 2011 as “the elected leader of a sovereign, self-reliant and democratic Iraq.”
"President Obama said very clearly that the United States have left Iraq as a stable and democratic country," said Allawi answered during an interview with CNN’s Fareed Zakaria. "It’s neither stable nor democratic, frankly speaking. The terrorists are hitting again very severely. Al-Qaeda is fully operational now in Iraq. We can see with the various explosions that are claiming the lives of innocent people every day, and we are seeing the unconstitutional behavior of the government."
At the time, President Obama’s public actions suggested a level of obliviousness to al-Maliki’s unpopularity amongst Sunnis, Kurds and even Shiites – which seems impossible – and to the interconnectivity of COIN’s nonmilitary dimensions.
Iraq’s political situation remains stalemated two years later.
Elsewhere, in Afghanistan, US officials have made similar claims of defeating al-Qaeda’s core and estimated their numbers in the low hundreds, prompting questions as to why nearly 50,000 US troops remain in the country. No singular answer exists but, as Iraq’s situation demonstrates, al-Qaeda members could easily multiply again when the opportunity presents itself.
This is not to say that US troops should extend their stay in Afghanistan or should have maintained a large presence in Iraq after 2011, as Graham fervently believes. So long as the political, economic and social conditions for insurgency exist, a committed and savvy group always has a chance of regenerating its structure from the edge of defeat. US troops and other military aid can’t resolve Iraq’s political dilemmas; unfortunately, Washington backed the wrong horse in Nouri al-Maliki and possesses limited options to respond to emergencies such as Fallujah. Al-Maliki is also a prideful man occupying a defensive position, and desperately needs a military victory to prove a political point. He won’t be open to much external assistance in Fallujah. This worrying scenario lends itself to other concerns, primarily the use of force against Sunni demonstrations protesting his rule across Anbar province.
The Obama administration has offered to assist Sunni tribal leaders in their fight against al-Qaeda, but these are the same people that al-Maliki quickly marginalized following the withdrawal of US forces. They can’t hold much trust in anyone outside themselves.
Al-Qaeda’s force is unlikely to entrench itself deeply in Fallujah if its members wish to participate in their next campaign. The group possesses little support amongst Sunni demonstrators and tribes (they are often one and the same), and thus cannot hold territory for long, but it can exploit enough popular resentment to thrive amid national chaos. And having used the end of Iraq’s war to support his own reelection campaign, President Obama cannot pivot back into the war and take American spotlights with him, especially when so much domestic capital is at stake. This arrangement handcuffs him from fully engaging the conflict and discourages the extensive reforms needed in Iraqi policy. Nor does he wish to get any closer to Syria, another sore spot in his foreign policy, despite its growing implications with Iraq.
A bad situation is turning worse by the day and Washington can only talk a big game from overhead.
“We are going to do everything that is possible to help them,” US Secretary of State John Kerry announced on Sunday, “and I will not go into the details except to say that we’re in contact with tribal leaders from Anbar province whom we know who are showing great courage in standing up against this as they reject terrorist groups from their cities. And this is a fight that belongs to the Iraqis. That is exactly what the President and the world decided some time ago when we left Iraq.”
James Gundun is an American political scientist and analyst of netwar. His blog, The Trench, covers the underreported areas of U.S. foreign policy and military activity. Updates on Twitter @RealistChannel.