Republican Presidential Nominee Donald Trump’s Aug. 15 accusation that President Barack Obama’s withdrawal from Iraq was responsible for the rise of ISIS has reignited debate over whether former President George W. Bush is really responsible.
President Barack Obama’s critics center on his withdrawal of forces from Iraq in 2010 as the decision most responsible for the rise of ISIS.
“U.S. forces acted as a moderating force in Iraqi politics,” Bill Roggio, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense Democracies, explained. He continued that without this moderating force, the U.S. could no longer “broker impasses between rival political parties.”
“It would have been extremely difficult with 25,000 troops, as well as the pairing with the awakening groups that were operating in Anbar province, for the Islamic State of Iraq to reconstitute,” said Roggio.
When Obama took office in 2009, he was determined to pull troops out of Iraq as soon as possible. Obama believed the historic lows of violence in Iraq justified his campaign pledge to bring the war to an end, without keeping a significant U.S. presence in Iraq to ensure stability. Obama’s defenders have also pointed to Bush’s 2008 SOFA commitment as justification for their withdrawal.
Experts who served in Iraq at the time, along with several members of Obama’s own National Security Council, dispute the idea that a SOFA could not be renegotiated based on the situation on the ground at the time.
“Obama didn’t try,” Roggio explained to TheDCNF continuing “there certainly were restrictions with the agreement that was in place, [but] they just didn’t want to do it.”
Ian Bremmer, a foreign policy expert and president of the Eurasia group, dissented in this view to TheDCNF saying that “the view that the Americans would continue continual and ongoing nation building, in a part of a world where our National interests are difficult to articulate” was not tenable.
The U.S. military also strongly opposed complete withdrawal from Iraq at the time. Army Gen. Lloyd Austin, the ground commander of the Iraq War at the time, developed plans to keep 24,000 troops in Iraq after 2011.
Obama’s political appointee’s were reportedly highly suspicious of the military, thinking they were being forced to a Korea style permanent occupation, which Obama derided in his 2008 presidential campaign.
Experts generally agree that the hasty retreat, both diplomatically and militarily, from Baghdad resulted in the isolation of Sunnis, the demoralization and corruption of the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF), and what turned into fertile ground for ISIS’s initial rise.
Maliki’s government was anxious for the U.S. to leave to so it could begin the sectarian purges, the U.S. presence never allowed it pursue. Literally hours after the U.S. withdrew its forces from Iraq, Maliki tried to imprison his Sunni Vice President on clearly nebulous charges.
Ali Khadery, the longest serving U.S. diplomat in Iraq, wrote in 2014 that after the U.S. withdrew “Maliki broke nearly every promise he made to share power with his political rivals,” just as he had warned the Obama administration in 2010. Khadery continues, “under these circumstances, renewed ethno-sectarian civil war in Iraq was not a possibility. It was a certainty.
While Iraq spiraled out of control between 2011-2014, its neighbor Syria also began to experience domestic turmoil. Democratic activists inspired by successful anti-authoritarian protests in Egypt and Tunisia took to the streets in 2011 to demand the institution of democratic reforms by Syria’s President Bashar Al-Assad.
Assad would have none of it and authorized the extreme use of military force against any dissident population. At the same time he emptied his prisons of terrorists, to turn the Syrian Civil war away from a struggle for democracy, and one between himself and Jihadists.
“The fear of a continued, peaceful revolution is why these Islamists were released,” Bassam Barabandi, a diplomat in Syria’s foreign ministry at the time, told The Wall Street Journal in 2014. Barabandi continued “The reasoning behind the jihadists, for Assad and the regime, is that they are the alternative to the peaceful revolution. They are organized with the doctrine of jihad and the West is afraid of them.”
Assad subsidized jihadi ranks and avoided fighting them so they could wipe out any moderate opposition. Against the advice of many his advisors, Obama refused to provide significant aid to moderate opposition groups like the Free Syrian Army throughout 2012 and 2013.
ISIS’s leader, Abu Bakr Al-Bagdadi, capitalized on the political conditions and began heavily recruiting militants from among Iraq and Syria’s population. He dispatched some of his fighters to Syria to take advantage of the ongoing civil war. Over the course of 2013, ISIS became a Jihadi juggernaut with no U.S. force to counter it, no Iraqi military force capable of fighting it, and a Syrian regime actively encouraging its growth.
Bagdadi gave a speech July 5, 2014, in the captured city of Mosul calling on all Muslims to obey his commands, and declared the caliphate of “The Islamic State.”
Obama’s defenders look much further back, insisting his bad hand be linked to the original 2003 decision to invade Iraq.
Bush invaded Iraq on March 20, 2003. The Iraqi Republican Guard didn’t put up that great of a fight, and two months later Bush declared major combat operations over in his famous “Mission accomplished” speech. Bush set up the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA), which would serve as a transitional government for Iraq, while a permanent Iraqi government was elected.
Bush tapped L. Paul Bremer, a former U.S ambassador and well known Reagan-era official to head it. In his first days in office Bremer issued two orders that would plunge Iraq into chaos.
The first order put 50,000 civil servants of the Hussein regime out of work. The second order disbanded the Iraqi military that numbered around 500,000 people and allowed the unemployed former soldiers to keep their weapons. Dexter Filkins, a Pulitzer prize winning war correspondent who covered Iraq for The New York Times, called the dissolution of the Iraqi Army “probably the single most catastrophic decision of the American venture in Iraq.”
The loss of the civil servants led to a complete shut down in basic governance, and the disbanding of the Iraqi Army angered hundreds of thousands of armed Iraqi’s. “The evidence is overwhelming that former Iraqi soldiers formed the foundation of the insurgency,” notes Filkins.
Bremmer believes this decision is where the blame lies for the rise of ISIS. He elaborated: “Ultimately I look to the initial decision, in the case of Iraq, the removal of Hussein, and specifically de-baathification,” as the main contributors to the current situation in Iraq.
As Iraq descended into violence, the U.S. backed Maliki for Iraqi Prime Minister, who was deeply sectarian and unpopular among Sunnis.
Meanwhile a Jordanian high-school drop-out named Abu-Musab al-Zarqawi arrived in Iraq. The Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) notes, “Zarqawi aligned his militant group, Jama’at al-Tawhid w’al-Jihad, with al-Qaeda, making it al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI).” He didn’t have much trouble convincing angry Iraqi’s to join him, and soon had several thousand fighters who would implement his new brand of Islamic terror.
Zarqawi’s aim, according to CFR, was to “draw the United States into a sectarian civil war by attacking Shias and their holy sites to provoke them to retaliate against Sunni civilians.” Zarqawi killed so many fellow Muslims, Bin-Laden told him to stop and to focus on killing Americans instead. After Zarqawi’s death in 2006, CFR writes, his “successors rebranded AQI as the Islamic State of Iraq, and later, the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS).”
The U.S. tried as hard as it could to target al-Qaida and bring security to Iraq but was largely unsuccessful between 2003-2006. In 2007, Bush had enough of the violence and ordered 30,000 additional troops to Iraq under the command of Army General David Petraeus, this plan became known as the “Surge”.
By the end of 2008, violence in Iraq was at a historic low, and Bush negotiated a status of forces agreement (SOFA) with Iraqi Prime Minister Maliki that would ostensibly end the U.S. presence in Iraq by the end of 2010. The caveat was always that withdrawal would depend on the current status of ground operations.
At this point, Bremmer points to the broader structural problems within the Middle East. Bremmer explained, “The ultimate reason you have al-Qaida and ISIS is because of the Europeans,” elaborating “they created a bunch of unsustainable borders and beholden states that weren’t economically sustainable.” He said that while dictators like Saddam Hussein, Assad, and Gaddafi brought some relative stability to the region “eventually you have to pay the piper.”
Hundred-year old borders aside, others think the West has an obvious leadership role to play in the Middle East.
“This was not inevitable, nor pre-ordained,” wrote Emma Sky, a top adviser of Army Gen. Ray Odierno, about Obama’s precipitous withdrawal. In a 2015 Op-Ed for the New York Times largely focused on Syrian refugees, Sky laid out in stark terms just how much US “disengagement” damaged Iraq’s security stance.
“What [Obama] fails to acknowledge is that after the colossal mistakes at the beginning of the Iraq war, the United States midwifed the emergence, from 2007 to 2009, of an inclusive political order and gained Sunni support to defeat Al Qaeda. The tragedy was that U.S. disengagement, and the overtly sectarian policies of Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki, led it all to unravel.”
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