Like most Iraq war veterans, my view of the resurgence of Sunni extremists in the country is colored by personal experiences, first as a Special Forces soldier fighting with Iraqi commandos, then as a junior staffer on the Pentagon’s Iraq policy desk. Both of those experiences led me to the same conclusion: This disaster was preventable.
At the beginning of 2009, I was assigned to a Special Forces team in Baghdad that was paired with Iraq’s national SWAT team. During the day, our team taught Iraqi commandos to fight close-in battles, while at night we jointly raided the hideouts of al-Qaeda and Shiite militants. This allowed the Iraqis to make much progress, so much so that after my final mission, our leadership decided that our team could begin scaling down its participation in operations.
But a U.S. presence was still required. Other Iraqi units were less reliable and needed more training. Throughout the country, many large Iraqi units were reinforced by small groups of U.S. advisers. With even a few Americans present, these troops had tutelage, leadership under fire and assured air support. Also important, the U.S. presence mitigated sectarian tensions. For instance, one reason for the effectiveness of the Iraqi SWAT team was impartial leadership. Some Iraqi politicians wanted to remove the SWAT commanding general because of this but could not because their U.S. partners insisted that he stay.
Fast forward to the summer of 2011. I was just finishing graduate school and a year-long work-study program with the Pentagon’s Iraq policy desk. Much of the desk’s work that summer focused on finalizing the details of the U.S. presence that would endure in the country after at the end of the year, when the existing status-of-forces agreement (SOFA) would expire. Both U.S. officials and Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki knew that the country needed the military presence for continued stability. Our field commanders wanted 15,000 to 20,000 troops, but the White House had lowered that to 10,000 and was pushing for further reductions.
With the Iraqis, the sticking point was our insistence on continued legal immunity for U.S. troops. Maliki conceded that this was necessary but wanted to enact the deal with an executive agreement, rather than propose legislation that might fail in Parliament. The Pentagon insisted that our troops needed the security of legislative approval. By July, the two sides were working out a way forward, but in early August, the White House dropped a surprise.
The White House called a meeting and informed the participants that the vice president would call Maliki and give him a week to accept a follow-on force of only a few thousand. The entire foreign policy apparatus erupted. The Pentagon, State Department, U.S. Embassy in Baghdad and U.S. military command in Iraq all said this was a bad idea.
For over a year, the Pentagon had explained the risks of ending the U.S. presence in 2011. The Iraqi army was not yet adequately trained and equipped. The Iraqi intelligence organizations lacked analytical abilities and sophisticated surveillance equipment. The Iraqi air force was weak. U.S. personnel would not be able to moderate sectarian tensions and would have less leverage with the prime minister. Terrorist groups would no longer have to worry about U.S. forces hunting them. In sum, an end to the U.S. military presence in 2011 made a resumption of the Sunni insurgency and resurgence of al-Qaeda more likely.
Defense staffers felt as though we had been torpedoed. With less assistance on the table, the package would be less appealing to Iraqi politicians, who would have to take political risks to deliver the SOFA. The timeline seemed designed to fail. Ultimately, negotiations extended for another two months before ending without an agreement. The administrations’ backers say Iraq’s domestic politics made any follow-on force impossible, but we will never know what would have happened if the White House had offered the number the Pentagon wanted and expended every effort to achieve parliamentary approval.
The result of this decision has now brought Iraq back to the front page. Al-Qaeda-linked militants took advantage of the deterioration of sectarian relations and its foothold in Syria and secured a zone of control in the country’s west, which they have extended to Mosul and Tikrit. They are now moving closer to Baghdad. Maliki, who fought his country’s Shiite extremists in 2008, has deepened ties to Tehran and its Revolutionary Guard, which backs Iraq’s Shiite militants.
As in Syria, inadequate U.S. support for moderates is making it more likely that extremists will win. The way to prevent further deterioration is to restore part of the package the Iraqis should have received in 2012. Offer them political mediation, additional equipment, intelligence support, airstrikes and, yes, U.S. Special Forces to train their troops and fight with them against our mutual enemies. There are risks in intervention, but so, too, are there risks in inaction. Crying “there are no good options” does not change the fact that one option must be picked.
Daniel Katz served with U.S. Army Special Forces from 2004 to 2009 and as a civilian with theOffice of the Under Secretary of Defense for Policy from 2010 to 2012.