Opinion: We're still paying for our mistakes in Iraq

Matt Saintsing
March 20, 2018 - 11:38 am

U.S. Marine Corps photo by Cpl. Ryan M. Blaich

Fifteen years ago today, United States military crossed the Kuwaiti border entering into Iraq, and in the process, launched Operation Iraqi Freedom, a war in which more than 4,000 Americans were killed.

More than one-third of my time in the U.S. Army was spent in Iraq, including one 15-month deployment. Some of my friends lost limbs, some lost their lives, but I was lucky enough to leave what so many of us call “the sand box” comparatively unscathed.

Last week, seven more U.S. service members were killed in a helicopter crash near al-Qaim, in western Anbar province. They were there supporting Operation Inherent Resolve, the American-led multi-national coalition to fight another enemy in both Iraq and Syria: ISIS.

The emergence of the Islamic State, and their ability to terrorize civilians and occupy entire cities in the Summer of 2014, is unmistakably linked to the American invasion and some massive strategic mistakes made long before the U.S. would commit troops to train, advise and assist Iraqi and Syrian rebel forces in their fight against the terrorist quasai-state.

We accomplished our goal, tactically speaking, in the early days of the Iraq War. We removed a brutal dictator who, during his 23 year tenure, plunged his country into a state of violence of biblical proportions. However, strategically, the U.S. failed to plan for the day after Saddam Hussein.

With little to no input from the Iraqi people, and ignoring the CIA’s advice, we dissolved the Iraqi military, a decision that robbed Baghdad of some of its most seasoned and respected commanders. Anyone associated with the Ba'ath Party, Hussein’s political party, was barred from ever serving again.

Photo by mvw

Now, 15 years later, that decision continues to haunt U.S. efforts in Iraq. Mountains of evidence points to former members of Hussein’s military who later became the leaders of ISIS, a brutal terrorist organization. 

In short, we toppled a man and his government, but in the process, we left behind a country in extreme disarray which required unprecedented American military support.

That’s not to say that American forces didn’t perform as expected. We did. But, war is one thing and the American military was built to defeat armies, not create them.

Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the Islamic State’s top commander, peppered his command with former officers from Hussein’s military and intelligence agencies. The kind of experience they brought to the table was a major reason the group had so many victories on the battlefield spanning from northern and western Iraq to eastern Syria.

Former Iraqi military commanders gave the Islamic State the discipline it needed to unify fighters from around the world with a single goal: a self-declared Caliphate. Fallujah, Raqqa and eventually Mosul, were abandoned by the Iraqi military, a force I, myself, helped train in northern Iraq during my second deployment—not a day goes by I don’t think about that.

To say the U.S. created ISIS is to strip any agency from top Iraqi officials, most notably Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who turned down repeated calls for help from the Peshmerga, the military forces of Iraqi Kurdistan. However, Baghdad’s inability to provide security, one of the most basic services a state can and should provide to its people, is inextricably linked to the war in Iraq and the insurgency that followed.

Lt. Gen. Steve Townsend, the American commander who oversaw Mosul’s liberation from ISIS and was a brigade commander there for more than a decade before that, said this just last March: 

“I visited Mosul yesterday and talked to some commanders and listening to their, some Iraqi commanders and some coalition commanders, and I was listening to their advisors. And I was listening to their intelligence assessment and some -- some of the same neighborhoods were being mentioned that I dealt with as sources of support for Al-Qaida back in 2006. And now, those same neighborhoods are being mentioned as sources of support for ISIS.”

U.S. Army photo by Spc. Audrey Ward

The Iraqi government failed to connect with the people of West Mosul, a largely Sunni enclave, and failed to incorporate many into a larger Iraqi community. That is how groups like ISIS emerge: they find support and terrorize or kill whoever stands in their way.

Today, however, Iraqi troops of every stripe stand shoulder to shoulder with their Kurdish, Sunni, Shia and Turkoman brothers and sisters to defeat a common enemy.

Gen. Joseph Votel, the commander of U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM), has repeatedly said that should not be taken for granted.

According to a Pew Research Center survey, nearly half (48 percent) of Americans say the decision to invade Iraq was wrong, while slightly fewer (43 percent) say it was the right choice. Perhaps ironically, I feel more optimistic about Iraq now, than I ever did in the days after I returned from a country that was unsuccessfully coping with a brutal civil war.

History, however, will ultimately be the final arbiter of what was right and what wasn’t.