President Barack Obama pledged throughout the 2008 campaign to end the “bad war” in Iraq and win “the good war” in Afghanistan. Now, days away from the end of his tenure, it’s clear all he’s done is make both worse.
Obama’s vacillating strategy — withdraw from then politically ignore Iraq, and fumble through Afghanistan — leaves the Trump administration with the most powerful Taliban movement in 15 years and an Islamic State global terrorist network.
“If you are a U.S. serviceman who served in Afghanistan at the time of the surge, you have to be very cynical about U.S. policy in Afghanistan,” Bill Roggio, senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, told The Daily Caller News Foundation.
Obama’s first major review of U.S. Afghan strategy in 2009 sparked intense debate in the situation room.
Two camps emerged. Vice President Joe Biden and his allies argued for troop levels to remain steady, and the mission to shift to counterterrorism. Secretary of Defense Bob Gates and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton agreed with the shift, but thought a sharp increase of troops was the best way to do it.
Obama ultimately decided to increase troops to 165,000 in 2010, but simultaneously — to the dismay of senior advisors, including Iraq surge guru Army Gen. David Patraeus — imposed an artificial deadline for withdrawing the surge forces.
Roggio likened the concurrent withdrawal announcement to “pulling the rug out” from under the surge. The strategy, he said, was like “not having a strategy at all.”
The surge spiked U.S. casualties. Troops fought for and secured Taliban sanctuaries. The Pentagon funneled billions of dollars to the corrupt Afghan government. Meanwhile, Taliban units “squirted” through the porous border and found sanctuary in Pakistan. U.S. diplomacy repeatedly tried to balance the needs of supply routes with taking a tough stance on Pakistan, which contained Taliban sponsors in its government.
“There was no plan to meaningfully deal with Pakistan,” Roggio explained.
The Pentagon found little progress in the surge. The level of violence increased. Taliban strategy shifted away from costly shootouts with U.S. troops and toward improvised explosive devices. Nearly 1,000 additional Americans became KIAs. Petreaus repeatedly told reporters that any sort of progress was “fragile and reversible.”
As the surge forces began to leave Afghanistan, the U.S. mission became increasingly unclear. Obama decided put the U.S. on a road map to exit. He traveled to Afghanistan to declare, in a nationally televised address, “The goal I set — to defeat Al Qaeda, and deny it a chance to rebuild — is now within our reach.”
Operation Resolute Support was born. The U.S. combat mission would end in 2014. Now, with U.S. support, the Afghan National Security forces would be on point.
Obama severely restricted rules of engagement. The U.S. was only allowed to intervene on behalf of the Afghans about to suffer a particularly devastating military setback. These rules of engagement, coupled with an increasingly corrupt Afghan government, led to the Taliban’s best year since the U.S. invasion and, later, fertile ground for a new ISIS branch.
Simultaneously, the U.S.-brokered a tenuous political deal between two political factions that had paralyzed the Afghan government. The Vice President of Afghanistan, Abdul Rashid Dostum, was denied a visa for his suspected role in war crimes. He also routinely launched independent military operations with private militias and threatened war against his own government. Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and “Chief Executive Officer” Abdullah Abdullah routinely clashed over appointments, leading to contentious debates over cabinet appointments. The political gridlock opened the way to even more corruption.
“Neither the United States nor its Afghan allies know how many Afghan soldiers and police actually exist,” John Sopko, the U.S. Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, noted in May 2016.
Regardless, the U.S. paid out salaries to troops who likely only existed on paper, enriching officers who often doubled as powerful warlords.
The Taliban began doing so well in this chaotic environment, Obama was forced to loosen the rules of engagement. It wasn’t enough. Afghan forces lost historic amounts of territory and continued to suffer terrible casualties. The Pentagon’s latest assessment of the Afghan war effort painted a dim picture: The problem dwarfed the U.S. commitment. The pace of the solution — training Afghan soldiers and then keeping them alive — was faltering dramatically.
In December, on the eve of Trump’s ascension, the U.S. resolute support command estimated the Taliban controlled 10 percent of the Afghan population, and contested the U.S. backed Afghan government for another 20 percent. The report noted that the government had been adept at keeping control of the major cities, while continuing to face a “resilient insurgency” in rural areas.
The Pentagon also rated the U.S.-backed Afghan Security Forces “promising but inconsistent.”
“There is a high concentration of terrorist and extremist organizations operating in Afghanistan and Pakistan, with several known designated organizations operating in Afghanistan and Pakistan, creating a complex threat environment,” the report warned.
But it wouldn’t altogether be tough to handle, if there weren’t another front.
Obama’s legacy in Iraq centers on his 2010 withdrawal and the burgeoning terrorist movement that arose in its wake.
When Obama took office in 2009, he was determined to pull troops out of Iraq as soon as possible. Obama believed the relative but tenuous peace in Iraq justified his campaign pledge to bring the troops home. Obama then asserted tepid influence in the 2009 Iraqi elections, which would set the sectarian tone in Iraq that eventually gave rise to ISIS.
“Obama’s first mistake was indecision,” Dr. Ian Bremmer, a foreign policy expert and president of the Eurasia Group, told TheDCNF. Obama’s support vacillated between then-Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki and one of Maliki’s rivals.
Obama used Bush’s 2008 Status of Forces Agreement, set to expire in 2010, as justification for withdrawal. Experts who served in Iraq at the time, along with several members of Obama’s own National Security Council, dispute the idea that a SOFA could not be extended based on the situation on the ground at the time.
“Obama didn’t try,” Roggio explained to TheDCNF continuing “there certainly were restrictions with the agreement that was in place, [but] they just didn’t want to do it.”
Bremmer dissented in this view to TheDCNF saying that “the view that the Americans would continue continual and ongoing nation building, in a part of a world where our national interests are difficult to articulate” was not tenable.
The U.S. military also strongly opposed complete withdrawal from Iraq at the time. Army Gen. Lloyd Austin, the ground commander of the Iraq War at the time, developed plans to keep 24,000 troops in Iraq after 2011.
Obama’s political appointees were reportedly highly suspicious of the military, thinking they were being forced into a Korea style permanent occupation.
Exactly what Obama’s critics said would happen if he withdrew in 2010 ended up happening.
Lacking U.S. forces to broker disagreements, the Iraqi government purged the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) of Sunni leadership, inflaming sectarian tensions with the large Sunni population in Anbar province.
“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.
Maliki’s government was anxious to begin the sectarian purges the U.S. presence never allowed it pursue. Literally hours after the U.S. withdrew its forces from Iraq, Maliki tried to imprison his Sunni vice president on clearly nebulous charges.
Bremmer continued that “until the withdrawal, Maliki maintained a good relationship with both Iran and the US. But the US exit left Maliki more dependent on Iran and less willing to accommodate the US.”
Perfect conditions for ISIS.
Inflamed sectarian tensions made Anbar province, previously inhospitable to Al Qaeda in Iraq, a sanctuary for the then-defeated terrorist organization. When ISIS stormed the city of Mosul in 2014, long-neglected Iraqi brigades dropped their weapons and fled. ISIS still holds Mosul, and controls vast swaths of territory throughout Syria.
Obama scrambled to send 5,000 U.S. forces back to Iraq. The mission’s orders were to train ISF, with limited operational support. Obama saw the limited deployment as a sustainable solution. Instead, Iranian backed Shiite militias offered nearly unlimited support, essentially hijacking the mission.
While the U.S. continued to spend billions of dollars on ineffective boondoggles, the Iranian government funneled millions into private militias. The militias became such a politically powerful force, Baghdad deployed them in tandem with the ISF. The militias maintain deep ties to Iran, and are overtly sectarian. In several instances, these militias have assisted in taking back territory from ISIS, only to terrorize the Sunni civilians they liberate.
The increasing independence of these militias may set the stage for another sectarian showdown after the ISF eventually retake the Mosul. The last major city held by ISIS in Iraq likely doubles as the only thing keeping fracturing political tensions from exploding. The Kurdish Regional Government’s forces, the Peshmerga, have proven resilient in the anti-ISIS fight and will also likely demand some support from the U.S. in a post-ISIS Iraq.
On the eve of the Mosul operation, Ramzy Mardini of the Atlantic Council leveled a stark warning on the administration’s pursuit of defeating ISIS, saying “In parts of Iraq recaptured from the militants where I’ve traveled, signs of any central authority are nonexistent.”
“Instead, what has emerged from the conflict is a complex patchwork of ethnic, tribal and religious militias that claim fief over particular territories.”
The conditions for maintaining governance and preventing the rise of another ISIS-like element, or worse yet, elements, are simply not set yet, he argued.
Petreaus also parroted Mardini’s thinking in August, saying failure to stabilize post-ISIS Iraq could lead to the rise of another version of ISIS. “The challenge of Mosul and Nineveh is the considerable number of ethnic groups, religious sects, tribes and other elements that make up the province.”
Ultimately, Petraeus warned the biggest challenge in Iraq is not the defeat of ISIS, but “to ensure post-conflict security, reconstruction and, above all, governance that is representative of and responsive to the people.”
Ultimately, a task now left to Trump.
“The Trump Administration has to take a step back and find out what it wants, and what it can realistically expect,” Roggio said. He conceded, “the window of militarily effecting Afghanistan closed with the surge, it showed that the US was not committed to Afghanistan in the long term.”
For Iraq, Trump faces similar existential choices. He must decide how to deal with the aftermath of Mosul. Iranian-backed Shiite militias have become a quasi political force, the Kurds increasingly demand independence, and the conditions for the rise of another ISIS remain.