Eleven Years And We Still Haven’t Learned From Our Mistakes

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We’d all like to forget our mistakes. Even the ones we learn from usually involve events we’d prefer not to think about or be reminded of on a regular basis. The key, though, is that we at least learn from our mistakes. Ignoring the mistakes we’ve made or pretending we didn’t make them at all is self-delusional at best.

The United States has certainly made mistakes in our ongoing conflict with Al Qaeda and its various embodiments; from Somalia to Yemen to Afghanistan and elsewhere. I think it’s an inevitable consequence of such a global, extended fight. Possibly the biggest mistake was shifting focus from Afghanistan, where our enemy was in disarray, to Iraq, a different, old enemy who was beginning to claw his way out from under ten years of harsh sanctions. Saddam wasn’t involved in the US/Al Qaeda war and I believe we could have dealt with his re-emerging regional ambitions without a full-scale invasion.

This month is the eleventh anniversary of the Iraq invasion mistake. But it seems America, at least the American media, would prefer to pretend it never happened. The only media outlet to even mention the start of the Iraq War I’ve seen has been Al Jazeera America. It’s only been eleven years but I’m starting to feel like a veteran of America’s new Forgotten War. We should understand our mistakes, hopefully learn from them. Not talking about the war at all is a serious error.

What Happened In Iraq

In Iraq we successfully deposed the dictator and achieved our initial goal, but we then compounded our original error and mistakenly decided to stay in Iraq to try our hand at nation-building.

There were successes, of course, though usually inadvertent. I don’t think we initially realized that by staying in Iraq we would turn that country into a major front in our war with Al Qaeda. But that worked out. For the most part, we won.

US forces were like a massive bug zapper for Islamic extremists, and at times it seemed like they couldn’t help themselves but be drawn to their deaths. A common jihadist refrain directed at Westerners is, “We love death more than you love life.” Well, it’s true. We killed AQ fighters by the thousands, if not tens of thousands, and by the time we left at the end of 2011 Al Qaeda in Iraq was a shadow of what it had been. While AQ in Iraq was never completely stamped out, it didn’t represent an existential threat to the government of Iraq and certainly had no ability to prepare and launch operations against the United States.

iraq2Eventually, through sheer blind-doggedness and dumb luck, we actually got Iraq to a semi-stable point on the verge of becoming a Western-leaning more-or-less democracy. Real elections were held and the sectarian and ethnic and political blocs were negotiating instead of going to war with each other. Not bad for what had looked like an unmitigated disaster just a few years prior.

We could have stayed. We knew the threats that still existed in Iraq and the region and we could have made a serious effort to mitigate them. We’ve done it in the past; we protected Europe from the Soviet threat after World War II and we still have tens of thousands of troops in South Korea protecting that country from the North Koreans. These were our allies and we rightly refused to abandon them even after major hostilities were over. General Austin, the commanding general of United States Forces – Iraq in 2011, did his best to negotiate a deal with Baghdad but with no political support from DC his efforts were doomed.

What Happened After Iraq

And so we left, and made the initial mistake of invading Iraq, and the subsequent mistake of staying, even worse.

Without the US military’s boot on its throat, the Al Qaeda franchise in Iraq (that had been all but exterminated while the US remained) flourished. In taking Ramadi and Fallujah earlier this year, the two largest cities in western Iraq and the sites of some of the bloodiest fighting of the entire US involvement in Iraq, Al Qaeda is carving out a new safe-haven and re-establishing itself as a regional threat in its alliance with the Syrian-based Al Qaeda franchise fighting Syrian rebels and Assad alike for control of Syria.

Al Qaeda in Iraq isn’t new to regional activities. It bombed a Jordanian hotel in 2005 on the orders of then-leader Abu Musab al Zarqawi. And with its resurgence in western Iraq and Syria the organization will be able to once again launch trans-national attacks on the West and our allies.

Make no mistake, we knew Al Qaeda would return. We left Iraq anyway.

And there have been larger regional consequences than just an Al Qaeda resurgence in western Iraq. Without the US military giving teeth to our diplomatic presence and providing a counterweight to Iran, Tehran’s influence in Baghdad grew to the point Iraq essentially became an Iranian client state.

This not a good development for regional stability. All the political progress we had made? Ceded to Iran. Additionally, with the US no longer controlling Iraqi airspace, Iran in 2012 was able to supply Syrian President Bashar al Assad with unlimited material support—including boots on the ground – ensuring he stayed in power and ensuring the Syrian civil war devolved into a free-for-all fight among the Free Syrian Army, Al Qaeda, other miscellaneous Islamic factions and Assad. Again, something we knew would happen and definitely not a positive development for regional stability.

And, yes, regional stability is important. The lack of stability in Afghanistan is what gave Al Qaeda the safe-haven it needed to develop and launch multiple attacks on the United States, obviously including September 11. Instability in the Middle East can have deep impacts on the price of oil and food worldwide, and due to the nature of our globalized economy that inevitably translates to negative impacts on the US economy.

Denying Al Qaeda safe-haven was the entirely legitimate justification for invading Afghanistan in 2002. Ensuring regional stability in the Middle East was why we re-took Kuwait from Saddam Hussein in 1991.

By leaving Iraq in 2011 we created the conditions which would require US involvement in another war in Iraq. Secretary of State Kerry said the Iraqis will have to deal with Al Qaeda’s offensive in Fallujah and Ramadi. That it’s their war. Well, it may be their local war, but fighting Al Qaeda and ensuring oil keeps flowing from the Middle East has been the US’ war for decades. At some point I believe we will be forced to become involved again in Iraq.

We should have just stayed involved.

If we refuse to admit we made a mistake in leaving Iraq because we’re angry and embarrassed that we mistakenly invaded Iraq in the first place, we’ll only have greater problems to deal with in a few years’ time. Not talking about the war or trying to forget it happened is a disservice to those who fought and to those who will have to fight again someday.

We can only hope maybe next time we’ll learn from our mistakes.

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