The Corner

National Security & Defense

Don’t Look Now, but We May Be Re-Winning the War in Iraq

ISIS-held territory is shrinking, and the critical battle for Mosul looms:

Kurdish Peshmerga forces retook a swath of northern Iraq late last month from Islamic State and days later American forces appeared in the area, the latest sign of increasing U.S. military activity in the country.

The U.S. troops, numbering about a dozen, were still there this week and spent Wednesday supervising Iraqi army engineers repairing a bridge to help local forces cross the Great Zab river in their push towards Mosul, the militants’ de facto capital in Iraq which Baghdad wants to retake this year.

Key to the advance, of course, is American air support, American logistics support, and special forces boots on the ground:

Loath to become mired in another conflict overseas, the White House has insisted there will be no American “boots on the ground” in Iraq, but current troop levels are approaching 5,000.

That is still a fraction of the 170,000 deployed at the height of the nine-year occupation that toppled Saddam Hussein in 2003, sparking an al Qaeda-backed insurgency and throwing the country into a sectarian civil war.

President Barack Obama withdrew U.S. troops from Iraq but they returned in 2014 after the Iraqi army fled Islamic State’s advance through a third of the country despite billions of dollars in U.S. aid and training.

The United States is conducting an extensive air campaign over Iraq and also covert special forces raids against the jihadists behind their frontlines.

First, it is still stunning to me that we’re facing yet another battle for Mosul. When I served in Iraq, most of my regiment was in Mosul (my squadron was in Diyala), fighting to wrest one of the last jihadist strongholds from enemy hands. Now the jihadists are back in force. Obama’s decision to abandon Iraq in 2011 ranks as one of the worst strategic blunders of modern times.

Second, it is to Obama’s credit, however, that he reversed course in time to save Baghdad and Kurdistan and reverse enemy momentum. The level of force hasn’t been sufficient to prevent ISIS from consolidating its gains, providing a home for jihadists worldwide, and beginning the process of educating a new generation of terrorists, but a prior generation of American politicians behaved much worse than Obama when they allowed South Vietnam to fall. There was no helicopter on the roof moment in Baghdad, and instead the enemy is now in retreat. 

Third, if and when Mosul falls again to the Iraqi government, we’ll have yet another chance to maintain our gains and protect our victory in Iraq. It will be incumbent on either president Clinton or president Trump to not repeat the mistakes of the past and maintain a military presence. The history is not yet written, and it may well turn out that we once again snatch victory from the jaws of defeat and have a chance to create a lasting, strategically advantageous settlement in Iraq. 

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