Peters: Bought with Blood

by William Peters | 9/23/14 5:31pm

What has more value, an American life or an Iraqi life? Would you prefer to see more Americans die in order to see fewer Iraqis slain, or would you rather see our troops come home and let Iraq deal with its own issues?

In a way, the 2008 presidential election asked voters these questions when they had to choose between Senator John McCain and then-Senator Barack Obama. In election-based politics, there are actually some promises that must be kept — and a U.S. troop withdrawal from an unpopular war was one of them. But with the emergence of the Islamic State extremist group, we are witnessing the consequences of that kept promise.

Four thousand, four hundred and eighty-nine Americans died in Iraq since the war began in March 2003. While they were supposed to be fighting terrorism and helping the Iraqi people get back on their feet, come the 2008 election season, the American public’s view of the war was relatively simple: get the troops out of Iraq. Obama began the process of troop withdrawal in June 2009 and finished in December 2011. Did he fulfill his promise to the public too soon?

The mission was not only to eliminate al-Qaeda in Iraq, but to simultaneously train Iraqi security forces and establish a stable, democratic government. Given the current situation — Islamic State extremists are pouring in through the Syrian border and seizing cities, capturing major infrastructure and orchestrating bombings in and around Baghdad — it’s fair to say that the Iraqi security forces weren’t prepared for this insurgency. Perhaps Nouri al-Maliki’s government wasn’t either.

It’s important to remember that the 2003 invasion and subsequent victory dismantled an entire totalitarian regime and its military, which left the people of Iraq looking to local leaders. This was a recipe for instant oligarchy, whether the U.S. or Iraq wanted it or not. The Shiites, who suffered under years of Sunni minority rule, control the central government, but the fact remains that most Iraqis trust local leadership significantly more than they trust Baghdad.

Particularly in Sunni-dominated areas like Anbar, and the so-called “Triangle of Death” south of Baghdad, Iraqis rely on the governance of sheiks and the protection from local militias. Shiite and Sunni militias were largely responsible for much of the sectarian violence that flared up in 2006. During what became known as the Sunni Awakening, Sunni militias, such as the Sons of Iraq, formed and successfully reduced the strength of al-Qaeda in Iraq. However, al-Maliki refused to integrate them into Iraq’s security forces, and many joined up with the Islamic State.

With U.S. troops gone, and an ineffective army and police force, much of the resistance the Islamic State has encountered has been from militias — particularly in cities such as Fallujah and Samarra. To say that Iraq had a capable security force in 2011 would be a serious case of misjudgment.

But is this what we paid for? Thousands of lives, more than a trillion dollars, and we paid for a state that can’t protect itself. The Kurdish inhabitants in the north are gearing up for partition and independence after successfully fighting the Islamic State, which brings some hope to their people.

But neither George W. Bush nor Obama had hoped to see Iraq on the brink of dissolution just three years after troop withdrawal (at least not publicly). Perhaps partition is the answer — if not to find peace, then to find a more manageable situation of consolidated ethnic groups with their own borders and security.

But I ask again, whose lives are more valuable? Those of Americans or Iraqis? Staying in Iraq longer likely would have cost American lives, but it also could have possibly saved thousands of Iraqis by training a better security force ... or perhaps not. Perhaps the Iraqi state was never able or willing to function with a representative democratic government and a national security force. A civil war and an insurgency sprang up while American troops were there, so what was to stop that from perpetuating once they left?

Here is a hard truth that few want to accept, whether they are American, Iraqi, soldier, civilian, politician or proletarian: Once the U.S. toppled Saddam Hussein’s regime and the army disbanded, we walked into a long-term commitment.

Without U.S. forces to keep the Iraqi military and militiamen in check, they were bound to fight each other, join up with al-Qaeda and fail to protect Sunni-dominated spaces. Our state-building efforts created a shaky democracy, one that prioritized the Shiite majority and provided almost no safety net for Sunnis or Kurds.

It is hard to say what Iraq would look like today if U.S. troops were still there. The Islamic State had been growing thanks to the civil war in Syria and support from al-Qaeda, and they very likely would pose a threat to Iraqi security regardless.

Civil conflicts and insurgencies are partially matters of opportunity. The Islamic State saw the U.S. military withdrawal as a big opportunity, and as it knows that the American public does not want troops on the ground, that is where they will fight. We invaded Iraq and defeated a tyrant, but when we left, a terror group began attempting to take his place. What did we pay for with all we spent on Iraq?

Peters is a staff columnist who served in Yusufiyah, Iraq from August 2006 through November 2007. His unit worked closely with Sunni militias and training the Iraqi army.