On Jan. 4, the Iraqi government lost control of the city of Fallujah. Located west of the capital of Baghdad, Fallujah was once home to some of the most ferocious fighting of the Iraq War. What sets the recent incident apart is that no invading army captured the city, but instead a militant group associated with al-Qaeda. The group, known as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, or ISIS, is a militant organization of radical Sunni Muslims who want to establish a new Islamic caliphate in the Middle East. Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki urged the citizens of Fallujah to oust the terrorists from the city, while the army continues to fight.
This development threatens the stability of Iraq’s new government and the Middle East. Vice President Joe Biden has called Iraqi leaders to validate United States support of the Iraqi government and its fight against terrorism. However, Biden’s demonstration begs the question: how was the Iraq situation allowed to devolve into a civil war between al-Qaeda militants and the democratic government?
The United States military formally left Iraq in December of 2011, as a central pledge from Barack Obama’s first presidential campaign in 2007-08 was to end the Iraq War and bring our troops home. Once President Obama took office in 2009, the war in Iraq had basically been won: al-Qaeda had no foothold in the country and the United States was training the Iraqi army to protect the new democratic government. Thanks to the 2007 surge of troops and General David Petraeus’s anti-insurgency strategy, the United States was in a position to begin pulling out of Iraq. All that was left was to renegotiate a Status of Forces Agreement, or SOFA, to allow for an American military presence with permission of the Iraqi government. Military commanders asked for about 20,000 troops to be left to continue counter-terrorism operations. In October 2011, President Obama announced that the talks for the agreement had failed and only a small force of less than 5,000 would be staying in Iraq after 2011. The administration’s explanation for why the talks failed was that the Iraqis refused to provide legal immunity for American troops accused of breaking the law. Failing to secure this agreement will haunt United States foreign policy for decades.
In international relations, failures can happen when two parties are unable to find agreement. Nevertheless, failure implies that both sides were both negotiating in good faith — the problem with the SOFA negotiation is that neither side was. The continued presence of American troops was extremely unpopular to many Iraqis, and the government could not publically agree to some policies, like legal immunity, for fear of public pushback. This problem could have been easily overcome, as the same problems were dealt with during the 2008 SOFA renewal, when the United States had more than 150,000 troops in Iraq, compared with less than 50,000 in 2011, but President Obama demonstrated that he had no interest in maintaining a sufficient troop presence in the country. For instance, during the 2008 SOFA renewal, the negotiations lasted well over a year. In the 2011 negotiations, the formal discussions over the agreement did not begin until around June, only five months before troops would have to leave. The administration’s inaction demonstrates their attitude toward the negotiations.
No one can blame President Obama for his conviction to leave Iraq. He was, after all, against invading Iraq in 2003 and was opposed to the surge of troops in 2007. But Obama’s failure to renegotiate a SOFA cost the United States a strategic foothold in the Middle East.
Having a strong military base in Iraq would have done wonders for American strategy in the region: one only need consider what happened in Europe following World War II when the United States kept a sizeable force in Germany, and in Asia when the U.S. kept forces in Japan. Our presence was critical to the maintenance of both countries’ democratic governments. American forces provided a level of stability and legitimacy in both cases, preventing conflict and signifying to the world that the new government was there to stay.
Additionally, bases in Japan and Germany were essential to the U.S.’s containment policy toward communism during the Cold War. The same containment principle could have been applied in Iraq toward radical Islamic fundamentalism. As most Islamic radicalism flows out of Iran, so Iraq could have been the first line of defense against it. Instead, President Obama passed on the opportunity and left Iraq to its own devices. Look where that has left them: a terrorist organization has control of a major city, and the region looks weaker than ever.
—Connor Kitchings is a freshman studying political science and economics