Candidates, one of you will be the fifth consecutive American president to make war inside Iraq. What will you face on day one of your administration?
You learned with us recently of the death of a Marine in Iraq, which exposed that the United States set up a fire base in that country, which exposed that the Pentagon used a twist of words to misrepresent the number of personnel in Iraq by as many as 2,000. It appears a second fire base exists, set up on the grounds of one of America’s largest installations from the last Iraq war. Special forces range across the landscape. The Pentagon is planning for even more troops. There can be no more wordplay — America now has boots on the ground in Iraq.
The regional picture is dismal. In Syria, militias backed by the Central Intelligence Agency are fighting those backed by the Pentagon. British, Jordanian and American special forces are fighting various enemies in Libya; that failed state is little more than a latent Iraq, likely to metastasize into its neighbors. There may be a worrisome note about Egypt, Saudi Arabia or Lebanon waiting for you under the Oval Office desk blotter.
But candidates, your focus must remain on Iraq; that is where what the Jordanian king now refers to as the Third World War began, and where Islamic State was birthed, and where the United States seems to be digging in for the long run.
Though arguably the story of Islamic State, Iraq and the United States can be traced to the lazy division of the Ottoman Empire after the Second World War, for your purposes candidates, things popped out of place in 2003, when the American invasion of Iraq unleashed the forces now playing out across the Middle East. The garbled post-invasion strategy installed a Shi’ite-dominated, Iranian-supported government in Baghdad, with limited Sunni buy-in.
Sectarian fighting and central government corruption which favored the Shi’ites drove non-ideologues without jobs, and religious zealots with an agenda, together. Clumsy policy cemented the relationship – a senior Islamic State commander explained the prison at Camp Bucca operated by the United States was directly responsible for the rise of the violent, theocratic state inside the divided, but then still largely secular, Iraq. “It made it all, it built our ideology,” he said. “We could never have all got together like this in Baghdad, or anywhere else.” So first came al-Qaeda in Iraq, followed by its successor, Islamic State.
Fast-forward through about a year and half of Washington’s fear-mongering and wagging the dog, and America’s re-entry into Iraq moved quickly from a Yazidi rescue mission, to advisors, to air power, to special forces, to today’s boots on the ground. That is your starting point on day one in office.
As your strategy, every one of you candidates has promised to destroy Islamic State.
Even if that destruction comes to be, the problems in Iraq, Syria and elsewhere (space precludes drawing the Turk-Kurd conflict into this article, though the war itself has no such restrictions) would still be there. Islamic State is a response, and its absence will only leave a void to be filled by something else. Your root problem is the disruption of the balance of power in the Middle East, brought on by a couple of regime changes too many.
The primary forces the United States are supporting to attack Islamic State in Iraq Sunni territories are Shi’ite militias. Though they have been given a new name in Washington, Popular Mobilization Units, that does not change what they are; have a look at a popular Instagram, where a Shi’ite fighter asked for viewers to vote on whether or not he should execute a Sunni prisoner. Washington clings to the hope that the militias and it are united against a common foe – the bad Sunnis in Islamic State – while what the Iranians and their allies in Baghdad also supporting the militias more likely see is a war against the Sunnis in general.
Oh, and candidates, that Iraqi national army, trained at great cost until 2011, then retrained for the past 18 months, is still little more than a sinkhole of corruption, cowardice and lethargy.
As for any sort of brokered settlement among the non-Islamic State actors in Iraq, if 170,000 American troops could not accomplish that over almost nine years of trying, retrying it on a tighter timetable with fewer resources is highly unlikely to work. It is unclear what solutions the United States has left to peddle anyway, or with what credibility it would sell them, but many groups will play along to gain access to American military power for their own ends.
What you will be inheriting, in the words of one commentator, is a “bold new decade-old strategy” that relies on enormous expenditures for minimal gains. The question for you is: if war in Iraq didn’t work last time, why will it work this time?
The hole is deep and being dug deeper as we speak.
Peter Van Buren blew the whistle on State Department waste and mismanagement during Iraqi reconstruction in his first book, We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People. His latest book is Ghosts of Tom Joad: A Story of the #99 Percent. Reprinted from the his blog with permission.