President Barack Obama, whose top foreign policy achievements include killing Osama bin Laden and ending the war in Iraq, now faces the prospect of a safe haven for anti-Western extremists emerging in the Arab country.
While the president has no intention of sending troops to Iraq, the capture of Fallujah and portions of Ramadi by Sunni Islamist militants threatens the gains his administration has made against al-Qaeda-linked terrorists.
Obama must deal with the threat of al-Qaeda units building a stronghold in western Iraq, say foreign policy analysts, including two who served in his administration and agree that the U.S. shouldn’t send troops.
Control of tracts of Iraqi territory by Sunni extremists would pose “a serious long-term threat” to U.S. interests if the groups maintain their hold, said Daniel Benjamin, who was State Department counterterrorism coordinator under Obama.
“Once safe havens are created, they can pretty quickly become hardened, and it becomes difficult to dislodge the militants without a major effort,” said Benjamin, now director of the Dickey Center for International Understanding at Dartmouth College. “These areas become conduits for men, money and materiel, and they give extremists a place to plot, which is dangerous for the neighborhood and, ultimately, for us.”
While the administration won’t consider returning combat troops to Iraq two years after Obama withdrew them, the U.S is speeding delivery of military equipment to the Iraqi government to help with the fight against the militias.
White House Press Secretary Jay Carney said the administration plans to ship additional Hellfire missiles to Iraq within months and send surveillance drones within weeks.
The U.S. is helping Iraq develop a strategy to isolate the groups tied to al-Qaeda, with some success in Ramadi, Carney told reporters yesterday. While “this is something for the Iraqis to take the lead on and handle themselves,” he said, “we are committed to provide assistance to the government of Iraq in its efforts to work with tribal and regional leaders to expel” the extremists.
Carney rejected criticism from some Republican lawmakers that the growing violence in Iraq is a consequence of the U.S. withdrawal.
“There was sectarian conflict, violent sectarian conflict, in Iraq when there were 150,000 U.S. troops on the ground there,” he said. “So the idea that this would not be happening if there were 10,000 troops in Iraq, I think, bears scrutiny.”
House Armed Services Committee Chairman Howard “Buck” McKeon, a California Republican, yesterday criticized the administration, saying it should “demonstrate a full commitment in support of an ally fighting a common enemy.”
“When our allies fight al-Qaeda for us, and the United States sits on the sidelines, not only do our allies notice, but so do our adversaries,” McKeon said in a statement.
Senator John McCain of Arizona, Obama’s Republican opponent in the 2008 presidential contest, said the militants were taking advantage of the withdrawal of U.S. soldiers.
Iraq is “descending into chaos, as we know, because of our failure to leave a residual force behind,” McCain said at a Jan. 3 press conference in Jerusalem.
Brent crude today halted what had been its longest run of declines since August on concern that the escalating violence in Iraq may disrupt oil output. Futures rose as much as 0.7 percent, ending a five-day losing streak, amid fighting in Fallujah and surrounding Anbar Province in Iraq, the largest crude-producing OPEC member after Saudi Arabia.
Iraqi security forces, militias or tribesmen may soon start an attack to retake Fallujah, after about 9,000 families fled the city, a government official said.
“I believe that a final combat will take place soon,” Faleh al-Issawi, deputy head of the provincial council of Anbar, said by telephone from Ramadi. Special forces have started operations in Fallujah and the army has surrounded it, Agence France-Presse reported.
U.S. Marines in 2004 fought Sunni forces to bring Fallujah under Iraqi government control. Militants now have seized some of the equipment that the Marines left behind for local police.
Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has “more than enough troops” at his disposal to quell militants in Anbar Province, said James Jeffrey, who was Obama’s U.S. ambassador to Iraq from 2010 to 2012.
The U.S. can best help with intelligence, weapons and “getting whatever commitment we can from Maliki” not to treat the country’s Sunni minority “as second-class citizens.”
Vice President Joe Biden spoke with Maliki by phone yesterday and encouraged him to work with Sunni leaders, according to a statement released by the White House.
Bruce Riedel, director of the Intelligence Project at the Brookings Institution, said Obama has “very limited options” to help counter the insurgency, which is fueled by Sunni grievances over treatment by the Shia-dominated government.
Intelligence assistance “would help Baghdad but not decisively,” Riedel said. “What it lacks is a political strategy to defeat al-Qaeda and rally Arab Sunni support. Washington can’t provide that; only Baghdad can.”
Still, the al-Qaeda-linked groups’ capacity to hold the territory in Iraq is unclear.
“The Iraqi government is going to crush these guys,” said John Nagl, a retired Army lieutenant colonel who served in Iraq and was co-author of the Army’s counterinsurgency manual. “They’re just going to kill a lot of Iraqi civilians when they do so, because they don’t have an alternative.”
The al-Qaeda threats in Fallujah and Ramadi are “largely local and regional” and, while “very serious” in the near term, are probably temporary, he said. “There’s no threat to the United States except insofar as it provides a rallying cry for al-Qaeda which has had a tough couple of years.”
There’s little U.S. public appetite for renewed military involvement in Iraq. Sixty-two percent of Americans now think it was a mistake for President George W. Bush to send troops there in 2003, according to a CNN/ORC poll taken Sept. 6-8. During the war, 4,489 Americans were killed and 32,237 wounded.
Obama was an early critic of the war, speaking against it as far back as 2002 when the prospect of invasion was popular. He won the Democratic presidential nomination on a campaign that condemned the early Democratic frontrunner, Hillary Clinton, for her Senate vote in favor of authorizing the war.
Obama withdrew U.S forces in December 2011 after negotiations with Maliki broke down over a so-called status of forces agreement that would have allowed the U.S. military to maintain a presence in the country. In his re-election campaign in 2012, Obama regularly cited ending the war in Iraq as a major accomplishment, along with the killing of bin Laden.
Addressing troops at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, in December 2011 at the end of the war, Obama said, “Iraq is not a perfect place. It has many challenges ahead. But we’re leaving behind a sovereign, stable and self-reliant Iraq.”
In a news conference last August, Obama restated that “core al-Qaeda is on its heels, has been decimated” while underscoring that the terrorist organization “and other extremists have metastasized into regional groups that can pose significant dangers.”
That threat would rise considerably if al-Qaeda-allied militants gain a foothold in western Iraq, said Ryan Crocker, who was U.S. ambassador to the country during the Bush administration.
“If al-Qaeda manages to really take hold of western Iraq, that’s a pretty substantial base on Arab territory, where they’d have security and the space to start thinking about operations wherever they want to think about,” said Crocker. “It’s exactly what they had in Afghanistan before 9/11.”