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The next president must learn from Obama's mistakes and make a long-term military commitment to Iraq.

Thursday, 28 July 2016 17:11

If the next president decides that a relatively peaceful, prosperous and democratic Iraq is important, then there are two critical lessons to be gained from the Obama presidency.

First, even after the defeat of the Islamic State group, peace will be fragile in Iraq. The country will require strong diplomatic and financial support. Therefore, if the next president bows to domestic political pressure and abandons Iraq again, the situation will rapidly deteriorate.

Second, the best efforts of the U.S. government will be useless without a long-term – a decade or more – military commitment. The U.S. military provides rare capabilities that will be necessary both to defeat the remnants of the Islamic State group and to prevent the rise of the next vicious insurgency in this troubled land.

Iraq is currently in eerily similar circumstances to those at the beginning of Obama's first term, seven-and-a-half years ago. An uncomfortable and loosely coordinated alliance of Kurdish Peshmerga, Shia militia, Sunni tribal groups, regular Iraqi military and almost 4,700 American military appear to be winning the war against the Islamic State group in Iraq. This tyrannical "state" of religious fanatics has been recently driven out of Fallujah and the battle to recover Mosul – the last major Iraqi city still controlled by the insurgents – has begun.

Should one be optimistic that Iraq will finally achieve peace? The experiences of 2009-2012 provide some insights into the necessary actions to achieve and preserve peace in this fruitful land that has suffered so much death and destruction over the last 35 years.

In 2009, Iraq experienced a wave of optimism. According to the group Iraqi Body Count, violent civilian deaths that year among Iraq's 31 million population had dropped to about 5,400 – an 82 percent decline from the bloody year of 2006. Such deaths remained low through 2012. Sunni and Shia representatives were working together to pass needed legislation in the Council of Representatives. The Iraqi economy had begun to recover. I remember hearing businessmen in Baghdad complain about the rapid deterioration of roads between Baghdad, Fallujah and Mosul; a deterioration brought about by a sharp increase in trucks carrying goods throughout newly pacified areas. There was still massive corruption, mismanagement and severely inadequate essential services but there seemed to be a belief that these problems could be solved.

 What went wrong?

Former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and President Obama must share the blame for Iraq's return to violent conflict after the relative peace of 2009-2012. Maliki had made unambiguous promises to the Sunnis of Anbar Province that, in return for their support in the fight against al-Qaida, young Sunni men would receive permanent positions in either the Iraqi army or national police. As soon as al-Qaida was defeated, these promises were broken.

In addition, a mixed Sunni-Shia party led by Ayad Allawi won more seats in the national election of 2010 than Maliki's State of Law Party and yet was prevented from forming a government. Instead, Maliki stayed in power. These events combined with the violent suppression of Sunni protests convinced many in the Sunni community that there would be no justice from the Shia-dominated national government.

President Obama further contributed to the deterioration by his abrupt pullout of U.S. forces. A force of 5,000 – 10,000 U.S. or coalition troops would have provided important capabilities that the Iraqi security forces were not able to provide for themselves. These capabilities include being able to integrate intelligence from a variety of sources, secure communications, combined arms coordination, effective training and – most important - acceptance as an honest broker both among Iraqi security forces as well as between the Iraqi military and their civilian leaders in Baghdad.

When President Obama – consistent with his 2008 campaign promises – announced a complete withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq, Maliki felt that to remain in power he must strengthen his bonds with both the Shia community in Iraq and with Shia Iran. Experienced military commanders who had proved themselves in the battles against al-Qaida were replaced with politicians distinguished only by their loyalty to Maliki. Maliki's corrupt bureaucracy stole much of the oil export revenues while essential services for most of the population failed to improve. The fracturing of relations between Sunni and Shia as well as between Arab and Kurd exposed weaknesses that the Islamic State group successfully exploited. And it has taken much blood and treasure to defeat this state and restore relative peace in Iraq.

The key lessons learned are that Iraq not only needs careful diplomatic and generous financial support but also a long-term military commitment. Such a commitment will be controversial. There will be a strong temptation for the next president to make the same mistake as President Obama and quickly withdraw U.S. forces as soon as there is a pause in the violence. But he or she should realize the painful lesson that President Obama only gradually discovered: without solid U.S. support, the center in Iraq will not hold.

 Source: us news

By Frank R. Gunter, July 27, 2016, at 4:00 p.m



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