News over the weekend that al Qaeda’s black flag was flying over Fallujah underscores the tragedy which has shadowed Iraq ever since the U.S. invasion in March, 2003. U.S. forces, primarily Marines, fought vicious battles there in 2004 to wrest control of the city from Sunni insurgents. Now, some ten years later, they appear to be in control again, at least temporarily.
Ironically, the situation in Fallujah today is not about the U.S. and Iraq or the battles we fought there. Instead, it’s about Sunnis versus Shia, the U.S. versus Iran. Much of it centered around Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, whom the U.S. supported and ushered into the Prime Minister position. Maliki is a Shia whose bent is clearly towards his Shia bretheren in Tehran, much to the dismay and displeasure of both the U.S. and Iraqi Sunnis. The U.S. has been stung by many of Maliki’s decisions, but stands by him. Iraqi Sunnis have suffered under Maliki, and for some it’s payback time.
Both the U.S. and Iran have offered military support to Maliki to quell the situation in Fallujah and elsewhere in Anbar Province. For the Iranians, Maliki is important to ensure Iran’s continued influence within Iraq and ultimately in the region. Maliki has proven to be a reliable lapdog for the Iranians, who use Iraqi airspace and ground ‘corridors’ to move men, equipment, and supplies to forces supporting Assad in Syria.
For the U.S. he is a lynchpin in continuing to portray some semblance of victory following the withdrawal of our forces in 2011. Maliki was our man, and for better or for worse having him there justifies all we have done and all the decisions we have made. Now, however, our total withdrawal of all U.S. forces and failure to leave even a symbolic number of troops as a gesture of commitment and support is costing us. It is Iraqis in Fallujah and elsewhere throughout the country who are paying the price.
In the eight years our forces were fighting in Iraq, I made many trips to observe how conditions were and to meet with our men and women serving there. Since we left at the end of 2011, I’ve made thirteen more trips, often meeting with Iraqis who supported us. In one such meeting with a senior Sunni sheik, his first question was quite pointed — “Why did you abandon us? Why did you leave after so much sacrifice? Thousands of American lives, billions of dollars? We don’t understand. None of us who supported you understand.”
How could they? How could the many American men and women who fought and sacrificed there during the course of the war understand? How could the men and women who fought in Fallujah and throughout Anbar understand?
I tried to mumble something about Obama and politics, but I didn’t think he would really comprehend my answer. It was too shallow, just like the thinking that underlaid the decision to withdraw all forces.
To be sure, I am one who has argued that the war was a mistake. Then, as now, our biggest threat from the Middle East has come from Tehran. It never came from Baghdad. But once we were committed, the right thing to do was to support our forces and support victory.
The fact is that leaving a residual military force did not mean we had to be engaged in combat. What we could have done from within secure bases was continue to support the Iraqis with the U.S. owned and operated high end intelligence systems and programs which had led to the defeat of al Qaeda and other insurgent groups. While we were still there, Iraqi special operations forces operating on their own had often used intelligence delivered by us to defeat the enemy. When we left, so too did that intelligence sharing capability. On their own, the Iraqis have been unable to replicate what we provided. The result is that al Qaeda and others like them have returned to wreak havoc, mostly at the expense of innocent Iraqis.