Put Me Back In, Coach – The Reasons I Would Go Back To Iraq
Like many members of the US military, I served in Iraq multiple times. I was there in 2004 during the heady days of post-invasion euphoria, when optimism was running high and the people were on our side. I was there in 2006, when things were bad and getting worse, and everyone was calling the war “unwinnable.” And I was there in post-surge 2008, when Iraq was slowly struggling to its feet. All of my tours in Iraq were with special operations units, which gave me the opportunity to gain a perspective that included the tactical, operational, and strategic levels of that conflict. When I left Iraq for what I hoped would be the last time, Iraq’s central government was weak and thoroughly corrupt, but it looked like things could, just maybe, turn out OK.
It looks like I was wrong.
Apparently I’m in good company when it comes to erroneous appraisals of the situation in Iraq. In 2003, President Bush declared an “end to major combat operations” in Operation Iraqi Freedom. History, and Al Qaeda, proved otherwise. As recently as 2010, Vice President Biden declared that Iraq would be one of the “great achievements” of the current administration. I’m pretty sure he would not make such an assessment knowing what we all know now.
What we all know now is that Mosul, Tikrit, and Kirkuk have joined the list of major Iraqi cities that the Iraqi government no longer controls, having lost these population centers to the Al Qaeda-affiliated group ISIS (also known as ISIL) or other armed sub-national groups. Currently, Iraq appears to be in a death spiral, with the Islamist cancer that has been festering for far too long in the western city of Fallujah now metastasizing and spreading counterclockwise throughout the body of the state of Iraq and getting closer and closer to Baghdad, like water circling a drain. It is clear that the fragile government we left behind in Iraq is coming apart at the seams.
While it is true that Iraqis are signing up in large numbers to fight Al Qaeda and its proxies, what we’re seeing is not a rush to protect the state but is instead the opening maneuvers of Iraq Civil War 2.0. Iraq needs help badly, and so far the only ones willing to provide it on the ground is Iran, which apparently sent two battalions of its elite Quds Force to “help Iraq retake” (i.e. seize for themselves) the city of Tikrit, which allowed Iraq to trade one group of occupying religious extremists for another.
Now, for those of you unfamiliar with Iraq’s geography, take a look at a map of the country and see how far inside Iraq the city of Tikrit is (sometimes spelled as “Tekrit”). If Iran can send two battalions that far into Iraq, and ISIS can seize everything north of it, is there any doubt that Iraq may be breathing its last as a unified nation? The current situation in the north and east doesn’t even address the issue of the Shiite militias in the south, the Sunni separatist movement to the west, or the territorial aspirations of Iraq’s Kurds in the northeast.
We knew that Iraq would be complicated, messy, and fractious for quite some time after we left, but it seems more and more obvious that what we thought were the growing pains of a newly born democratic state are instead its death rattle. Iraq had a chance to come together as a nation and decide its future together, but we’re far from what we saw as the promise of a (relatively) stable, unified, and democratic Iraq. So what went wrong?
Many things, apparently. The first and most obvious was, of course, President Bush’s decision to invade Iraq in the first place. Then President Obama came to power in part on a promise to end the war in Iraq. “End,” he said, not “win.” That’s an important distinction. While the war is over for the US—for now—I guess Al Qaeda, Iran, and the other groups fighting there didn’t get the memo. More than that, though, we chose democracy for a people who weren’t ready for it, and couldn’t handle its responsibility, and then wondered why it didn’t work for them.
I believe that all men have an inherent right to live free under a government of their own choosing, and I think that a democratic form of government is ultimately the most fair, equitable, just, and profitable one in the world. But I’m also interested in promoting what’s best for America. So while we might hate to admit it, in order to have a stable, coherent nation in Iraq that we could use to promote our national interests in the region, a dictatorship might have been the best form of government for Iraq’s current composition and level of development. We took that out of the equation and didn’t give the Iraqi people something that they thought was better. Both nature and identity politics abhor a vacuum, and radical militant Islam was there to ooze into the gaps we left behind.
With that said, I’ll leave the “could have” and “should have” of our most recent Iraq excursion to the historians and concentrate on the here and now. Right now, strategically-important Iraqi cities are falling like dominoes and Iraq seems to lack both the will and the capability to do anything about it. Additionally, every group with an identity, some kind of territorial ambition, a coherent narrative, and an armed militia is seizing territory for itself. Aside from the various armed Sunni terrorist groups vying for power in the north and west, the Kurds have moved in to fill the power vacuum created when Iraqi forces abandoned their positions in what many aspire to be “Greater Kurdistan.” The Shiites in the south are mobilizing again as well. Potentially-stabilizing forces such as aid workers, investors, and foreign workers are fleeing the country. Even the US’s massive, billion-dollar embassy, the most expensive and purportedly the most secure one in the world, is reportedly on the verge of being evacuated.
Look, I don’t miss Iraq. I didn’t like the country, and the people didn’t like us. I don’t feel like I left anything behind that I need to go back and get. What we did there was important, and we played the best hand we could with the cards we were dealt. But the deck was stacked against us, and ultimately we as a nation didn’t have the fortitude to finish the game. My comrades that sacrificed so much in Iraq can hold their heads high and know they did their part, even though right now it might seem like everything we did there was ultimately futile.
Many of my fellow veterans are currently discussing whether they want to go back to Iraq to fight ISIS and help stabilize the country. My comrades in arms seem pretty evenly split between two frames of mind when it comes to the current situation. The first I’ll call the “put me back in, coach!” approach. This one holds that Iraq is unfinished business, where much money and more importantly many lives were spent in pursuit of establishing and securing a free and democratic society; it’s time to go back and finish the job. Then there is the “let it burn” school of thought, which holds that we gave the opportunities to have an independent, stable, wealthy, and democratic state, and they blew it by turning their backs on our support, so they’re reaping the bitter harvest of their own bad choices. That mindset is particularly attractive to those among us who feel betrayed by the way we left Iraq and know that we, unlike the policymakers, will have to bear the brunt of Washington’s poor decision-making.
Both sides have good points, particular the “let it burn” approach. This one risks no US lives and cost no US money—at least not up front. There is also something deeply satisfying in being able to say, “I told you so.” This approach might be the one that wins out, since President Obama has already ruled out sending in ground troops to help out the Iraqis. If this holds, then the best we can apparently do is send supplies, advice, and maybe some air strikes.
But here’s why that line of thinking is flawed: ISIS now has the fighters, the territory, the natural resources, and thanks to the seizure of close to half a billion dollars in cash, the funding to create a viable base for the re-establishment of an Islamic caliphate. Since they now control the Bayji Oil Refinery and the oil-rich areas of northern Iraq, they can continually fund their jihadist ambitions and either seize the entirety of Iraq, or, more likely, break off a large part of it and keep it as their own. This will allow ISIS to overcome the entropy inherent in terrorist organizations and perpetually regenerate its money, manpower, and ideology. Given all of this, it is clear that if ISIS is successful in seizing Iraq, or in maintaining control of a significant portion of it, it will very bad for the US and our allies.
ISIS is a genuinely evil organization. Don’t believe me? Check out some of the videos they themselves are producing about the things they themselves are doing in Iraq. Murder. Maimings. Mayhem. And more to come, unless something… kinetic is done. And soon. If left unchecked, ISIS will be better armed, better trained, and better resourced than anything we have faced in the past. Having seized the state of Iraq, they will be more motivated than ever to spread their vile manifesto throughout the civilized world. That’s why the US should act, instead of standing by in smug satisfaction while Iraq falls apart. Far better to crush the viper when it is still in its shell than to let it grow to a size that will threaten all of its neighbors. Far better to stamp out a nest of vipers in their own backyard instead of waiting until they creep into yours.
We know through bitter experience that air strikes don’t stamp out anything; that has to be done with boots on the ground. The President is already planning to send special operations forces back into the fray, in a “non-combat” role. “Non-combat” isn’t what we need right now. “Non-combat” isn’t going to stop the ISIS steamroller. “Non-combat” can, and should, come later. Now is not the time for talk, it is the time for action.
Specifically, direct action.
So yeah, I’d go back to Iraq. Not out of some deeply felt sense of connection with the Iraqi people or for a closely held sense of moral obligation, because I have neither. Not because of the sunk costs of our losses there, although I still feel them acutely. Not to build a democracy, because the people there aren’t ready for it. Not because “we broke Iraq” or because people are suffering, since I feel pragmatism and self-interest trumps morality in national-level decision-making. The main reason why I am willing to go back to Iraq, as dirty, bloody, and frustrating as it is likely to be, is because I don’t want Iraq to be used as a base to threaten the US or our allies and interests, and I know that acting now might actually save us blood, treasure, and national prestige in the future.
Put me back in, coach. I’m ready.