Written by Matt Gurney
Photos can define presidencies. Truman had his moment clutching a newspaper erroneously reporting his electoral defeat; Reagan had his while standing behind a Berlin podium, demanding that the Soviets tear down the hated Wall. For supporters of President George W. Bush, the enduring image is of the president standing arm-in-arm with first-responders in the smoldering wreckage of the World Trade Center. For his detractors, no image sums up his time in office better than his smiling image under the “Mission Accomplished” banner.
President Obama has not yet had his defining photographic moment. All the same, his administration may well be careering towards a “Mission Accomplished” banner-sized mistake. That mistake is notAfghanistan, a war the president has embraced, sacking top commanders and beginning a massive troop surge, while seeking various ways of cooperating more closely with the neighboring Pakistanis. Iraq, however, is a very different story.
Iraq is the orphan war of the Obama presidency. Declaring against America’s involvement in the country throughout the presidential campaign, Obama brought it to the swiftest conclusion possible once elected; then he turned his attention to the more popular Afghan War.
Indeed, any claim that the Iraq War’s end would ease the strain upon either America’s coffers or its military is disingenuous – there is more than enough pressing need in Afghanistan to sop up any resources freed up by the ongoing Iraq drawdown. By next year, more money will be spent on the Afghan War than on Iraq, the first time that has been the case since the latter began six years ago. That trend away from Iraqinto Afghanistan is likely to accelerate.
Even as the White House and the Pentagon are shifting their attention to the older, oft-neglected conflict, Iraq’s path to recovery is fraught with danger. The escalating violence in Iraq should be cause for alarm inWashington. Sectarian violence has been on the upswing since the allies began withdrawing. Australia and the United Kingdom have already left, and American forces withdrew from Iraq’s urban areas in July. Despite the fact that there are still 130,000 US troops operating in Iraq, with their withdrawal from the cities, the American mission there transformed from direct counter-insurgency to mentoring and supporting the Iraqi forces, upon whom all hopes for a total American withdrawal by 2011 ultimately rest.
Since the July 1st departure of the American troops from Iraqi cities, the Iraqi Security Forces have had to contend with a string of bombings, many blamed on the Sunni-Muslim terror group al-Qaeda in Iraq. This group, believed to be the largest surviving terrorist group in the country, is based primarily around the northern city of Mosul. These attacks have targeted minority ethnic groups and Shiite Muslims, in an obvious bid to derail national unity in the face of an upcoming general election in January of 2010.
It is no surprise that the group waited out the Americans – the troop surge, combined with rapid advances in counter-insurgency tactics and the so-called Sunni Awakening, allowed the United States to put al-Qaeda in Iraq back on its heels. The Iraq War, written off by many Democrats as a failure not worth continuing, quickly became the best modern-day example of how a determined military, led and equipped well, can adapt itself. The Cold War mindset of the US Army has been swept aside, and the world’s foremost counter-terrorism force has been born. President Bush wisely put off attempts by Democrats to score a political advantage by making the Iraq War a Republican failure, and gave the troops the time they needed to turn things around.
It is not too late to erase these gains through reckless haste, however. Iraq’s Shiites – numerically in the majority but under Saddam Hussein’s Ba’ath Party a marginalized group – have resisted the temptation to retaliate against Sunni targets. This has prevented a spiral of violence like the one that occurred after the bombing of the Al-Askari mosque in 2006. While the Shiites have thus far wisely refrained from large-scale retaliation in favor of supporting the political process, the attacks are certainly embarrassing the government and the Security Forces. Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has even gone so far as to predict that the violence will continue to increase in the lead up to the elections, which he says demonstrates al-Qaeda’s desire to disrupt the furthering of the democratic political process. That’s no doubt true, but along the way, al-Qaeda in Iraq is also demonstrating how ineffective the democratic government is at maintaining security.
No doubt insurgents stockpiled weapons and held off on attacks, waiting for exactly this opportunity – a chance to strike not at the heavily armed and battle-hardened Americans, but the fledgling Iraqi forces. There was always going to be a rough transition from US-led to US-backed, and the Iraqi forces are in that period now. All the same, the United States must closely monitor the progress made by Iraqis in preserving the relative calm paid for in so much American blood. If the Iraqis are not yet ready to stand on their own, or if the continued attempts by al-Qaeda in Iraq to sow sectarian discord eventually succeed, the Iraqi Security Forces might come apart at the seams just when the Obama Administration is pledging to bring the troops home long enough for a quick visit before sending them all to Afghanistan.
America must not let that happen. There are humanitarian considerations, of course: the collapse of Iraqinto total sectarian brutality and anarchy would result in tremendous slaughter and human suffering. Jihadists would be emboldened world-wide.
There is also the issue of international prestige and domestic political support. How will Obama be able to sustain public acceptance of the war in Afghanistan if Iraq descends into barbaric chaos? How could allied political leaders, even if personally sympathetic to the Afghan endeavor, dare to offer up their forces to support America in Afghanistan as the scope of the Iraqi failure became clear?
That Iraq has become an unpopular war in America goes without saying. President Obama is clearly eager to wash his hands of it as quickly as a plausible approximation of success can be put together. There is no shortage of Democrats eager to make their political futures by competing to see who can call for an Iraqpullout the loudest. Even so, this is a time for sober reflection. The coming months will prove, one way or the other, whether or not the Iraqi Security Forces are up to the task of securing their country and defeating terrorism. If they are, then the American forces there can rightly be withdrawn and reoriented towards the war in Afghanistan.
But if the Iraqis are unable to secure their own country in time for the upcoming January elections, despite the tremendous war-weariness felt by a frustrated American public and an ambitious new president, America will face a difficult choice: to recommit itself to a stable and safe Iraqi future or to risk all hard-won gains of recent years and leave Iraq to its fend for itself. On that decision hinges Iraq’s future and, perhaps, a presidency.