Two recent foreign policy announcements from the White House signal possible vindication for critics of current Middle East policy.
First, on July 6, President Barack Obama announced he would keep 8,400 troops in Afghanistan past the end of his presidency. Then, he announced on July 11 that he would send 560 additional troops to Iraq, adopting a strategy of U.S. engagement in Iraq and Afghanistan his critics have been advocating since he took office in 2008.
“This period of unprecedented chaos coincides with a period of unprecedented U.S. disengagement in the region,” former U.S. Ambassador to Iraq and Afghanistan Ryan Crocker told Ozy on June 23.
Obama entered office in 2008 hellbent on ending U.S. involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan, and for a time it seemed he would succeed. In 2010, despiteresounding calls to the contrary, Obama did not push the Iraqi government to extend the U.S. status of forces agreement and precipitously withdrew all U.S. troops from Iraq.
In Afghanistan, Obama surged troops to 165,000 and imposed an artificial deadline for withdrawal of surge forces 18 months later. Obama’s senior advisors,including General Petraeus, told him the withdrawal announcement concurrent with the surge announcement would neuter the surge’s purpose, but he proceeded anyways. The surge was largely ineffective and the Taliban merely waited out the U.S. 18 month deadline. Obama pivoted away from active U.S. engagement in Afghanistan towards a reduced presence that focused on drone strikes. The pivot ultimately ended the U.S. combat mission in Afghanistan and reduced troops to less than 1,000 inside the U.S. embassy.
In Iraq, exactly what his critics said would happen ended up happening. The U.S. forces in Iraq were the only honest broker between sectarian forces and the U.S.-backed Iraqi government. The Iraqi government, purged the Iraqi Security Forces of Sunni leadership. The purge had the dual effect of removing capable military commanders and inflaming sectarian tensions with the large Sunni population in Anbar province.
Inflamed sectarian tensions made Anbar province, previously inhospitable to Al Qaeda in Iraq, a sanctuary for the then-defeated terrorist organization. The terrorist group in question decided to rebrand itself “The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria,” or “ISIS.” When ISIS stormed into the city of Mosul in 2014, Iraqi Security Forces crumbled under a force one-tenth of their size. ISIS still holds the city of Mosul, and controls vast swaths of territory throughout Syria. The terrorist group inspired a global jihadist movement that kills thousands across the globe.
Characterizing the situation, Crocker said, “The space that we were working in was taken over by Islamic State on the one hand, and by the Iranians and their proxy militias on the other.”
In Afghanistan, a similar situation played out in the backdrop of Obama’s drawdown policy. Obama ended the U.S. combat mission in Afghanistan and gave half-hearted support to the Afghan Security Forces in the fight against the Taliban. Since Obama’s decision, the Taliban is making unprecedented gainsacross Afghanistan, wiping out 14 years of U.S. accomplishments in the region. The end of U.S. engagement also allowed ISIS and Al Qaeda to establish deep footholds in Afghanistan, footholds the CIA assesses as a serious threat to the U.S. homeland. The ensuing situation prompted Obama to loosen the rules of engagement against the Taliban. Many believe that an enduring presence in Afghanistan for years to come more likely, following these actions.
At his announcement to extend America’s presence in Afghanistan, President Obama made a conditional promise of withdrawal – offering total drawdown of U.S. forces in exchange for a peace deal between the Taliban and the U.S.-backed Afghan government. The Institute for the Study of War noted on July 14, “A peace agreement is unlikely, however, as militants have steadily regained territory since the bulk of U.S. forces withdrew from Afghanistan beginning in 2011.”