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Don’t Go Back to Iraq

by Seth Moulton

August 25, 2014
Seth Moulton in Najaf, Iraq, during his second deployment as a U.S. Marine

We cannot go back to Iraq. But that is exactly where we are headed.

A decade ago this month, I went back to Iraq as an American military advisor. When insurgents started to overrun the Iraqis we were assigned to mentor, my Marine platoon went to assist. We called in air strikes, and so began the heaviest combat since the invasion; soon the Pentagon was forced to redirect additional battalions of American ground troops to help.

Make no mistake, when the President says we have “military advisors” on the ground in Iraq, he’s talking about U.S. Special Forces who are combat troops in every way.

As my experience demonstrated—and America’s experience in Vietnam previously proved—an advisory mission can become a full-fledged ground combat mission very quickly. That is why I currently discourage sending American military advisors to Iraq.

Today, the crisis in Iraq is a political problem, not a military one: ISIL (the State Department’s approved term for the group also referred to as ISIS) overran Iraq’s borders because the Iraqi military lost faith in Prime Minister Maliki’s government. The army itself was not overrun by ISIL; soldiers put down their weapons and walked home.

Iraqis have taken the important step of moving on from Maliki in favor of the more moderate Haider al-Abadi. While Abadi enjoys broader support and is likely to form a more inclusive government than Maliki, serious challenges remain. Yet we are not making the right investments to solve them.

Our ultimate goal must be a unified Iraqi government and an Iraqi Army that can do its job without the help of American troops. It’s the only sustainable, long-term solution. So how do we get there?

First, recognizing the political roots of today’s crisis, mentoring the Iraqi government, not the Iraqi military, should be our priority. When Ambassador Crocker and General Petraeus reported to Congress on the 2007-2008 Surge, they said that military progress exceeded expectations, but political progress fell short. They asked for a “diplomatic surge,” but the huge American embassy built to support it is now half-full, just when the Iraqi government is in crisis.

On my next deployment, in 2005, I kept close tabs on an Iraqi governor south of Baghdad who had Iranian and sectarian leanings. Every time we heard a rumor he intended to do something divisive, we threatened to withhold support and applied pressure from Baghdad. Only with that kind of hands-on mentorship did we keep him in line, but it requires diplomatic advisors, and we have few in Iraq today.

The State Department requested just $262.9 million in FY 2015 funding for diplomatic and consular operations in Iraq. Compare that to what State has requested for economic aid to Jordan ($360 million) and Kenyan global health programs ($371 million).

Second, any additional military investments, if any, should be conditioned on political progress. But local forces must lead the way, or it will quickly become our war. The Iraqi military vastly outnumbers ISIL, and having worked with the Iraqi Army extensively over the past decade, I am confident they can handle the threat independently, without American help, so long as they have faith in the government they are charged to defend.

Underlying all of this should be an absolute commitment from the United States to defeat ISIL. ISIL is a serious threat—it is an evil, terrorist organization with international ambitions, as the vicious beheading of American journalist James Foley proved to the world. But in resolving to defeat ISIL, we reserve the decisions on how and on what timeline we pursue that victory.

Here at home, Congress’ tepid statements of support-plus-caution for the President’s action are reminiscent of the lead-up to the Iraq War in 2002. We need our political leaders to ask the hardest questions about putting Americans into harm’s way and to propose serious diplomatic alternatives. Military escalation is a slippery slope, and we cannot afford to watch history repeat itself, again.

Seth Moulton served four tours in Iraq as a Marine infantry officer, beginning by leading a platoon in the first company of Marines into Baghdad in 2003 and concluding as a Special Assistant to Commanding General David Petraeus in 2008. He is now running for Congress as a Democrat in the 6th District of Massachusetts. 

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