This article is part of a Face Off series. The opposing article, “Fly, you fools! U.S. Policy in Iraq,” can be found here.
The Iraq War is 21st-century America’s great buyer’s remorse. We thought it was a great idea when it started–now, not so much. It’s easy to forget that the 2002 resolution authorizing use of military force passed both houses of Congress with supermajorities, and PEW Research Center polling showed public support for the invasion itself at a staggering 72-22. 15 years, thousands of lives, and over a trillion dollars later, Quinnipiac polling now puts public approval at an abysmal 32-59.
My purpose in writing is not to discuss what should have been done differently, but rather to ask: “What now?” If the war is awful and unjustified, isn’t it best to just extricate ourselves once and for all? As tempting as that may sound, pulling out now will only make the situation worse for both Iraq and the United States. The best way to save human lives and prevent future conflicts is to remain in Iraq.
To make a case against withdrawal, one does not need to look further than the Iraq War itself. The United States technically withdrew from Iraq in December 2011, following a long and unsatisfying campaign in which we accomplished no major objectives beyond the death of Saddam Hussein. But Iraq was not prepared for the power vacuum that followed our departure. Without Hussein’s regime or the U.S.-led military force to maintain order, sectarian violence skyrocketed across the country. Religious and political divides that had been suppressed by our strong military presence came roaring back, as mobs enacted vigilante justice against families of insurgents and warlords seized control of vast swaths of territory. The new, unsupported government was weak and corrupt, and could not offer economic stability or personal safety to most Iraqis. It was onto this chaotic stage that the Islamic State stepped.
ISIS had existed as a small satellite of al-Qaeda since 1999, but the group grew quickly as it swept into northern Iraq in June 2014. Many Iraqis saw them as liberators, as a source of stability in a lawless, tribally-dominated land. By the end of the year, ISIS controlled more than 34,000 square miles of Iraq: roughly 20% of the country. They established a caliphate—a religious nation-state—and declared religious war (jihad) against the West. Unwilling to risk the establishment of a terrorist government whose stated goal was its destruction, the U.S. was forced to quickly send troops, supplies, and air support to keep Iraqi pro-government forces from collapsing entirely. Just like that: 3 years after withdrawing, we were back in the same conflict, fighting a newer, stronger enemy spawned by our previous exodus.
We cannot afford another power vacuum where terrorists can offer citizens more security and stability than their own government. Over the last 3 years, with our support, Iraqi forces have slowly taken back over two-thirds of the territory ISIS once held. Let’s make sure they don’t have to do so again.
However, it is critical that if we stay in Iraq, we do so for the right reasons and with a sound strategy. Staying simply to “fight bad guys” will not work, and is a mentality that has contributed greatly to our current predicament. I am not a military man, but if I were asked as a civilian to propose a more effective strategy than our current “kill terrorists” model, I would submit the following:
Our goals should be to build public trust in the Iraqi government and to maximize the government’s ability to provide for its citizens. Focus on fighting corruption and fostering confidence in local government institutions, such as impartial court systems, trustworthy police, and fair democratic elections. Make sure citizens have reasonable access to food, water, shelter, and employment. All military engagements should be focused on taking and holding territory, not inflicting casualties. I am not advocating “nation-building” in the traditional sense; we should not mold the Iraqi government to look like our own. In fact, we should regularly consult with respected civic and cultural minds in the region, to make sure the government remains truly “Iraqi”, and is not perceived as being our puppet. If Iraqis trust their own government, a resurgent ISIS will have a much harder time attracting people to its cause.
Our overarching objective should always be peace, but this does not always mean we should walk away from war. Leaving Iraq now would create another power vacuum and possibly another ISIS; the events of 2014 would repeat themselves, and soon we would find ourselves in Iraq for the third time. The only long-term solution is to capacitate Iraq to defend itself and help its citizens achieve a quality of life where terrorists have nothing substantial to offer them. Not only is this the only road to victory; it is the only road to peace.
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