What To Do About Iraq?

As you know, events in Iraq have unfolded quickly as the fighters of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) moved into northern and western Iraq from Syria.  The cities of Mosul and Tikrit, significant in many ways to Iraq, fell without resistance from the Iraqi army, most of whom changed into civilian clothes and ran away.  The ISIS fighters seemed well on their way to Baghdad when the Iraqi army, backed by Shiite militia, stiffened and are now providing resistance to the advance. How this will end is anybody’s guess at the moment — truly, no one really knows.

There are several things that we do know, however, and these are worth a look.  Most importantly, the question before our national leadership is “should the United States get involved in what is fundamentally a religious civil war?”  “If so, in what way?”  Clouding the issue of course is the investment we already made of 4,487 dead and 32,223 wounded Americans.  A high price to pay any time, but especially given the unraveling of all that was accomplished. Unfortunately, in my view, we should not invest any more lives or treasure in Iraq.  Certainly, we should not do so under the current conditions.

Demands that the United States should supply immediate intelligence and material support to the Iraqi government are a bit overblown and not really reflective of the facts.  This is true in particular because of two things: the Iraqis have been known in the past to use “intelligence” to even scores with political rivals, and the ISIS forces are now equipped with modern U.S. weapons left behind when the Iraqi army abandoned their posts.  It will be a continued waste of time and money (and perhaps lives) to continue to equip and train the Iraqis (or any force) if they refuse to fight.

Most experts do not believe that ISIS has the will or ability to take Baghdad, especially now that the Iraqi army is beginning to mobilize.  It will, however, get very dicey in Baghdad in the coming days as the terrorists will use assassinations and car bombs and other attacks to disrupt life in the city and to create more friction between the factions that live there.  While Iraq as a whole is divided into roughly three sections (Sunni, Shiite, Kurdish), all three elements are present in the city which is also de facto divided.  This is where the United States needs to beef up its efforts. Protecting the world’s largest American embassy and those that work there should be our current focus of main effort.

It is tempting to get into a “who is responsible for this mess?” argument.  There is plenty of blame to go around.  Some of you may recall that from my observations in a key Pentagon office that I felt that President Bush and his administration began planning to invade Iraq beginning in January of 2001 following his inauguration.  The unfolding events after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks gave them a reason, however much of a stretch that might have been.  It was especially discomfiting because our real effort should have been in Afghanistan where the threat was real.  That is all now past history.  Similarly, accusations that President Obama did not do all that could have been done to reach a Status of Forces Agreement with the Iraqi government to leave U.S. troops there serve to place the blame at his feet.  I happen to think that the Iraqi people as a whole never really wanted the United States there at all, period, end of discussion and that it was unrealistic to think that they would allow our troops to stay.  But again, whatever one’s opinion of  that, it is past history.  We are where we are and the challenge is figuring out what to do about it now.

The real problem is the current Shiite government that totally shut out the previously dominant Sunni power brokers.  There is enough religious animosity, deep-seated anger and hatred between the two groups and that has only been exacerbated by the administration of Nouri al-Maliki refusing to deal with Sunni leaders and driving them not only from the government, but in some cases, from the country.

I suspect time will reveal that some percentage of the ISIS fighters are actually Iraqi Sunnis seizing an opportunity to topple the current government.  I am not sure how long this uneasy coalition of terrorist fighters can stay together and I am especially doubtful of their ability to administer a large territory or population.

There is no doubt, however, of their ability to create havoc, destruction, and threaten the lives of thousands of people.  They are also creating the conditions for another failed state that can easily become a training ground for terrorists that reach far beyond the current area of conflict.  That is a different problem, one that needs to be addressed but different from what to do to support the current Iraqi government.  In the end, wars end through political settlements.  Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is not able to, or does not desire to, build a functioning coalition government.  The ISIS leadership is not interested in a negotiated settlement.  This leaves the United States with few options.  In my opinion, putting more American lives at risk through direct military action will not help the situation and should not be one of the options on the table.

We should continue to protect our embassy and critical workers and to pressure Nouri al-Maliki to work out a political settlement.  Whether an “artificial” country drawn by western powers without regard to the indigenous population can survive is a difficult question that only time will resolve.

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The Curious Case of Sergeant Bergdahl

For those that may be unfamiliar with Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl, United States Army, he is the soldier that was held captive by the Taliban for five years, probably in a remote area of Pakistan.  He was returned to U.S. Special Forces on Saturday 31 May in exchange for five senior Taliban held in Guantanamo Cuba as terrorists.  From where I sit, there are a number of strange aspects to this case so perhaps we have yet to hear the full story.  However, as it has unfolded thus far, I am troubled by certain aspects of it.

First and foremost I am happy for the Bergdahl family.  As their only son (reportedly he has an older sister), I can only imagine the heartache this family went through and the joy that they now feel as he starts his journey home to Idaho.  For the Bergdahl family, this was a major success for U.S. diplomacy.

On the policy level, I am not sure that we made the right call.  I disagree with the reasons given by some politicians that are critical of the trade, but I do agree that the Obama administration may have set a bad precedent.

Several of the criticisms, in my view, are weak.  Among them:

  • We have now put a price on every American’s head and the incidents of kidnapping for exchanges for other terrorists will now be the new normal.  Weak argument.  For many years now there has been a price on American’s heads overseas, especially in the war zones.  Nothing has changed there.  Terrorists all over the world are not for the first time thinking “why didn’t we think of that? Let’s go find us some Americans to trade.”  Nothing new.
  • The Obama Administration was required to give Congress 30 days notice before moving any prisoners from Guantanamo Bay.  This provision is really a political attempt to prevent the administration from closing down Guantanamo Bay and has little to do with this case.  More to the point, the Commander-in-Chief needs the flexibility to act quickly when an opportunity presents itself.  Given the apparent circumstances of the trade, it probably came about quickly and had to be acted upon quickly or the opportunity could be lost. Concern for Sergeant Bergdahl’s health is the stated reason for the quick action.  One could perhaps argue that this was not as urgent as portrayed by the White House, but the President must still be able to act quickly when opportunity arises.
  • The timing was an attempt to divert attention from the problems in the Veterans Administration.  Really?  The Taliban cares about the VA and politically protecting President Obama?  Really?

Likewise, I think that some of the justifications given by the Administration are weak.  Foremost among them:

  • Our military leaves no man or woman behind.  Fair enough and true enough — an honored tradition.  But I am not sure how we would have been leaving him behind if the United States will still have a military presence in Afghanistan until at least 2016.  There have been some unconfirmed reports that our intelligence agencies had an excellent knowledge of his location and that a Special Forces raid was considered to extract him by force.  If this is true, it is more in keeping with the “no one left behind” tradition than is a “prisoner” exchange.
  • We do not and did not negotiate with terrorists.  Disingenuous.  All governments do.  This includes Israel, most often held up as a paradigm for tough actions against terrorists.  The question is how, when and for what, not whether we or other nations do it.  The Obama administration contends that the Qatari government arranged the deal. Okay, so we did not sit down at a table with the Taliban, but who did we think was at the other end of the Qatari discussion?  (Interestingly, the deal may have been finalized at last week’s West Point graduation ceremony where President Obama spoke and the Qatari Emir was present to see the first Qatari graduate from West Point.)
  • Prisoner exchanges are a normal part of warfare.  Perhaps, and they certainly occur, again under the right circumstances.  What were the circumstances in this case that made it so compelling?  We have yet to get the full story.

Similarly, I think the discussion takes a wrong turn when pundits and critics combine our policy for withdrawal from Afghanistan; our trading of the five Taliban for Sergeant Bergdahl; whether the Sergeant deserved (?!) to be rescued because he put himself and others in harm’s way due to his own actions; and the general view of the Obama Administration’s foreign policy as weak.  All of these things are worthy of discussion, but they are all separate issues and should not be rolled up into one big free for all.  They need to be addressed in context and as stand alone issues, even as they are inevitably related.

It seems to me, as others have stated, that the real reason for this exchange is to tidy up loose ends as the war in Afghanistan winds down.  There are certainly humanitarian overtones to the case, and I’m glad that the Sergeant and his family will be reunited.  As a matter of policy, I don’t think we should have sent five Taliban leaders to Qatar in exchange.  They may be under close supervision for the next year, but if they are still alive a year from now, they will most certainly get back in the game and actively work to undermine U.S. interests.

To me it is a finer point than whether or not to “negotiate with terrorists” or discussions over how many Taliban equal one U.S. soldier (in my eyes an American soldier is worth an infinite number of Taliban, but I understand we won’t trade limitless numbers of them, nor should we do so).  It is just a matter of reality that these wars are different and the fact that some of those we have captured will never go home.  Nor should they ever go home.  We totally mischaracterize the nature of this conflict by talking about prisoner exchanges and the like.  This is not World War I or World War II.  There will be no armistice or peace treaties.  There will be no Marshall Plan for the Taliban or for Al Qaeda.

I look forward to someday hearing the rest of the story.  There are many curious aspects to this case and I don’t think we have heard all of it.  Given what we know so far, if we wanted to get Sergeant Bergdahl home, we should have gone and brought him home.