Last month, relying mainly on the work of Jessica Lewis of the Institute for the Study of War, I wrote about the resurgence of al Qaeda in Iraq. Today, the Washington Post, in a front page story that quotes Lewis extensively, describes the same phenomenon:
Nearly two years after the U.S. troop withdrawal, Iraq is in the midst of a deepening security crisis as an al-Qaeda affiliate wages a relentless campaign of attacks, sending the death toll soaring to its highest level since 2008. . . .The bloody campaign has virtually erased the security gains made in the past five years. More than 5,300 Iraqis have been killed this year. . . .
Iraq once looked as though it could be stabilizing. After a horrific sectarian war engulfed the country in 2006 and 2007, the United States sent a surge of troops and began enlisting Sunni fighters to turn against al-Qaeda. When the U.S. military withdrew at the end of 2011, militant groups were on their heels and monthly civilian death tolls were in the dozens rather than the hundreds.
That period of relative safety lasted into 2012, but it began to unravel as Syria’s anti-government protest movement developed into a civil war fought along sectarian lines. Many radical Sunni fighters in Iraq and Syria have now united under the banner of ISIS. The militants consider the two nations to be different fronts in a single war with an ambitious goal.
The civil war in Syria does, as the Post says, play a part in al Qaeda’s resurgence in Iraq. Naturally, though, that resurgence has more to do with conditions in Iraq than conditions in Syria.
And the deteriorating conditions in Iraq have plenty to do with President Obama’s failure (or unwillingness) to obtain a Status of Forces Agreement that would have allowed U.S. forces to remain in Iraq past 2011. As Max Boot reminds us, a major reason for the failure to reach such an accord was “Obama’s unwillingness to send more than a few thousand U.S. troops to Iraq in spite of U.S. commanders’ recommendations that he send at least 15,000 to 20,000.” Iraqi leaders “figured that a commitment of fewer than 5,000 U.S. troops would be mainly symbolic and ineffectual and would not be worth the resulting political controversy.”
With the U.S. military out of the way, al Qaeda promptly began to make inroads, as Lewis shows.
Iraqi Prime Minister Maliki comes to Washington this week seeking U.S. support in the fight against al Qaeda. Whether he will receive more than token assistance from Obama is questionable. It is also questionable whether congressional Republicans, an increasingly isolationist breed, will call for more than token support.
Meanwhile, in Afghanistan, Obama may be on the road to repeating his Iraq blunder. Citing the New York Times, Boot says that there is serious talk of leaving only 5,300 to 8,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan — a figure well below the 13,600 that Gen. Jim Mattis, former commander of Central Command, estimated to be necessary. Boot adds that Mattis’ figure itself is a low-ball estimate in the judgment of many military experts.
Reasonably enough, Boot sees a repeat of Obama’s Iraq withdrawal policy producing a repeat of the Iraq consequences in Afghanistan, with Afghan politicians opting for no U.S. or NATO troops and the security situation rapidly deteriorating. Indeed, the adverse consequences are likely to be even more severe in Afghanistan because “it faces a more malignant insurgency with more entrenched cross-border bases and its government and security forces are weaker than their Iraqi counterparts.”
However, the Obama administration seems almost as indifferent to the fate of Iraq and Afghanistan — where so much American blood was spilled to turn the tide against Islamic jihadists — as it is to the fate of Syria and Libya.
Jackson Diehl, deputy editor of the Washington Post, is therefore restrained when he attacks Obama’s approach to the Middle East as “based on fantasy.” Diehl writes:
For Obama, succeeding in even the limited objectives he has set for the Middle East would require reshaping conditions on the ground: weakening Assad, degrading Iranian strength, bolstering Israeli and Saudi confidence. That work could be done without deploying U.S. troops, but it would be hard, expensive and require a lot of presidential attention.
Unfortunately, presidential indifference is the best we can expect from Obama.