How Obama Abandoned Iraq

President Obama’s facility for lying has taken center stage once again, as Americans grapple with the reality that they in fact can’t keep their health insurance if they like it. Yet while they remain focused on that debacle, another series of declarations made by the president, namely that al Qaeda was “on the run” and near “defeat,” is looking equally deceitful. Last Friday, Obama and Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki met in an effort to deal with what is being characterized as a “bloody resurgence” of al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI). “Unfortunately, al Qaeda has still been active and has grown more active recently,” Obama was forced to admit to reporters.

Active is an understatement. More than 6,000 people have been slaughtered in 2013 alone, according to UN estimates. Eight days ago, a series of nine bombs placed in parked cars were detonated over a half hour period at markets and police checkpoints in Baghdad. The blasts killed at least 42 and wounded more than 100 in mostly Shi’ite neighborhoods. On the same day, 14 people were killed and at least 30 more were wounded when a suicide bomber drove an explosives-laden car into a group of soldiers sealing off a street near the al-Rafidain Bank, where their fellow soldiers were getting paid.

Those attacks and others drove the October death toll to 964, including 855 civilians, 65 policemen and 44 soldiers, marking the highest monthly death toll since 2008. The number of wounded totaled 1,600 including 1,445 civilians, 88 policemen and 67 soldiers. By contrast, only 33 insurgent fighters were killed, and 167 were arrested.

Thus, Maliki was making his first visit to Washington, D.C. in two years, seeking help to stop the carnage. His first meeting took place Wednesday with Vice President Joe Biden. In the two hour session, the Iraqi leader asked Biden to help him overcome congressional opposition to the sale of Apache attack helicopters to his government. Maliki considers the Apache’s ability to fire precise ordinance and track enemy movements with powerful cameras critical to defeating AQI.

Congressional skeptics from both political parties are highly suspicious of Maliki’s motives, believing that he might use such weaponry against political opponents unaffiliated with AQI, or other terrorist organizations. They further contend that Iraq continues to allow Iran to enter its airspace, facilitating that nation’s efforts to send Syria President Bashar Assad military supplies and fighters. Six senators — Carl Levin (D-MI), Robert Menendez (D-NJ), John McCain (R-AZ), James M. Inhofe (R-OK), Bob Corker (R-TN), and Lindsey Graham (R-SC) — hammered Maliki’s government, saying it remained beholden to Iran’s “malign influence.” They further condemned Maliki’s “mismanagement of Iraqi politics” that threatens to reignite a civil war.

There is little doubt the senators’ objections have merit, but Maliki’s machinations did not occur in a vacuum. When U.S. troops “surged” into Iraq in 2007, the sectarian tensions between the Sunni minority and the nation’s Shi’ite majority had largely dissipated. By 2011, al Qaeda’s ability to exploit that divisiveness had been significantly degraded. And while most of the American media blame the Maliki government for the withdrawal of all but a few hundred troops from Iraq, due to Baghdad’s refusal to renegotiate a Status of Forces Agreement, Max Boot, senior fellow in national security studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, paints a decidedly different picture:

Boot notes that in 2011, the Iraqis expressed the exact same reservations about granting U.S. troops legal immunity for breaking Iraqi laws they had voiced when the previous Status of Forces Agreement was negotiated in 2008. The difference? “President Bush really wanted to get a deal done, whereas Mr. Obama did not,” Boot explained.

Boot reveals the stark differences in strategies, explaining that while Bush spoke weekly with Maliki by video teleconference, Obama didn’t call Maliki for months prior to a call in late October 2011 to end negotiations. Bush negotiated with Maliki for a year. Obama waited until only a few months before U.S. troops were scheduled to withdraw in December of 2011.

Obama further complicated the issue by allowing State Department and Pentagon lawyers to insist the Iraqi parliament approve the agreement. Bush did not make a similar demand, relying on the Memorandum of Understanding that allows U.S. personnel to operate throughout the Arab world.

Boot further explained that Obama constantly undermined his own negotiating position by bragging about ending the war in Iraq, and making a decision in August of 2011 to commit as few as 3000-5000 troops to remain in country. Obama stuck to his guns, despite military advisers requesting 20,000 troops, and former Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, contending that 10,000 would be the absolute minimum required to engage in counter-terrorism operations, provide support for American diplomatic personnel, and bring Iraqi security forces up to capable levels.

Once Iraqi officials realized Obama wasn’t serious, they weren’t willing to risk alienating the Iraqi public to support a grossly inadequate force level. “So the end of the U.S. military mission in Iraq is a tragedy, not a triumph–and a self-inflicted one at that,” Boot concluded.

It is a tragedy with all the elements of a farce. Maliki has alienated large swaths of his nation’s people, with crackdowns undertaken against Sunni and Kurdish leaders, and other opposition forces. Those crackdowns reached a critical point last April 23, when government forces killed dozens of Sunni protesters in the city of al-Hawijah, igniting an expanding backlash against Baghdad. That backlash was amply facilitated by a jailbreak, freeing 500 men from Abu Ghraib prison, many of whom were leaders of AQI. As a result, the terrorist organization is now building camps, training facilities and staging areas in western Iraq, where they are being equipped with heavy weaponry from Syria. “It is a fact now that al-Qaeda has a presence in western Iraq, and it has a presence in terms of camps and training facilities and staging areas that the Iraqi forces are unable to target effectively,” said a senior administration official who spoke on condition of anonymity.

Complicating the issue even further is the reality that the Obama administration is ignoring the very real possibility that Maliki’s government is responsible for, or at the very least complicit in, a deadly attack against the Iranian refugee group, Mujahedin e-Khalq (M.E.K.), that occurred September 1 at Camp Hurriya. That attack, in which 46 men and six women were killed, and another seven were taken hostage, made a complete mockery of a promise by U.S. officials in 2003 to protect the group in exchange for their agreement to disarm.

Although the Obama administration refuses to blame the Maliki government, 45 House members from both parties vehemently disagree. They have written the president a letter asking him to withhold arms shipments until Iraqi officials work to get the hostages released, and take “clear and verifiable steps to protect the remaining residents of Camp Hurriya.” “This is a matter of American honor at stake,” former House Speaker Newt Gingrich told the Wall Street Journal. “If Maliki is not prepared to be an honest partner, then there’s no reason for the United States to prop him up–if in fact he’s going to be an Iranian agent.”

An honest partner on either side of this equation remains difficult to discern. Following his meeting with Maliki, Obama contended ”the strategic partnership between our two countries remains very strong,” and that he was ”encouraged” by Maliki’s efforts “to ensure that all people inside of Iraq–Sunni, Shia and Kurd–feel that they have a voice in their government…so people understand that when they have differences they can express them politically as opposed to through violence.”

Emma Sky, a policy adviser for U.S. Army Gen. Ray Odierno when he was the top American military commander in Iraq, explains why that viewpoint is calculatingly naive. First she notes the consequences of the Obama administration’s premature troop withdrawal, and the boost it has given a “resurgent” AQI. “During the surge, we helped build up the immune system of Iraq to deter these attacks,” she contended. “Now that immune system has been taken away.” Sky then gets to the meat of the current issue. “Before you had the U.S. there to protect the political space and help move the country forward.”

Now, you don’t.

Once again, as it did in Syria, the Obama administration has engineered a lose-lose scenario. By prematurely withdrawing American troops, Obama gave Maliki free reign to realize the power-consolidating ambitions that ignited the animosity of Sunni insurgents, who were fueled by the belief they have been marginalized by the Shi’ite-led government. AQI, absent any interference from U.S. forces, has been able to exploit this rift with impunity. Furthermore, despite the ostensibly cordial meeting between Obama and Maliki, Lukman Faily, the Iraqi ambassador to the U.S., warned that if the Obama administration won’t commit to providing weapons and other aid in a timely manner, “we will go elsewhere.” “Elsewhere” would undoubtedly mean reaching out to Russia and/or China, further diminishing the United States’ already diminished role in the region.

If the Obama administration does provide aid, and Maliki is truly the “Iranian agent” that Newt Gingrich and other members of Congress apparently believe he is, we end up further abetting the Iranian regime’s hegemonic ambitions. Ambitions that are already being abetted by the administration’s fecklessness in dealing with Syria. In both Iraq and Syria (with Afghanistan undoubtedly to follow) the Obama administration has demonstrated an uncanny ability to pursue short-term political interests, even as it remains oblivious to their long-term implications.

When he may have been able to work with legitimate Syrian opposition, Obama chose to ignore the ever-increasing carnage in that nation for almost two years. As a result, we are now arming Syrian rebels affiliated with al Qaeda. In Iraq, Obama chose to “end” the war and declare al Qaeda “on the run,” to shore up his leftist base for the 2012 election. As a result, we have re-energized the AQI terrorist movement that poses a threat not just in Iraq, but in coordination with its terrorist allies in Syria, the entire Middle East–while we negotiate with a government that has likely made a mockery of our promise to protect Iranian refugees.

“Some of these Al Qaeda networks that are coming in from Syria and that are based in Iraq now really have heavy weapons,” a senior administration official told reporters in a conference call last Wednesday. Sadly, they have a reckless Obama administration to thank for their largesse.

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