The Ghosts of Iraq: Lesson for Afghanistan

The Ghosts of Iraq: Lesson for Afghanistan


HILLA, Iraq — On May 10, 2010, workers at the State Company for Textile Industries were boarding busses to go home when two car bombs detonated simultaneously in the factory parking lot, followed by a third bomb minutes later. As medics rushed the scene, a fourth car bomb detonated, the blast engulfing emergency medical personnel and bystanders.

An attempt to further destabilize Iraq after January’s indeterminate elections, these attacks marked just four of twenty during one of Iraq’s bloodiest days, in which Al-Qaeda would kill 114 people, wound 350, through a series of coordinated shootings and bombings. A sanguinary homecoming for an insurgency that had been in remission against former President George W. Bush’s 2007 military “Surge.” 

Iraq veteran Pete Hegseth says for PragerU, “Led by General David Petraeus, and supplemented by 30,000 additional troops, American forces and their Iraqi counterparts reversed the course of the war."

When Hegseth returned to Iraq in 2008 following the Surge, he could hardly believe the change he witnessed, "Attacks on US forces were down 90%. American casualties were rare. Baghdad’s most dangerous neighborhoods were secure."

"The oil was flowing again. Iraqis were rebuilding.  And new elections were held," Hegseth adds.

Against the odds and opposed by Senators Joe Biden, John Kerry and Hillary Clinton, to name a few, Bush’s strategy resulted in the decimation of Al-Qaeda in Iraq and created what General Petraeus called a functional “Iraqracy.” 

Former President Barack Obama applauded the success he inherited from Bush, “The peace and strong participation in January’s provincial elections sent a powerful message to the world about how far Iraqis have come.” Four months later, the peace paid for in blood would be devoured by fire and shrapnel. What was Obama’s response to these heinous attacks against a nascent democracy?

On Dec. 18, 2011, one year and seven months after the May 10 attacks, President Obama had the last U.S. boots off the ground in Iraq. Not one year later, in July 2012, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi released a statement online announcing that his group, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS), was returning to strongholds from which U.S. troops and their allies had driven them from during Bush’s Surge. The horrors that metastasized out of Iraq in the vacuum of Obama’s pullout has left an indelible mark on the minds of millions.

On Monday, the president revealed his Afghan battle plan, reportedly the brainchild of legendary general and current Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, a man who is no stranger to war. Per Breitbart, the five “core pillars” of the Afghan strategy include:

  • Getting rid of any timelines for how long U.S. troops would remain in Afghanistan
  • Using all elements of power, including diplomatic and economic
  • Getting tougher on Pakistan
  • Getting India to help more with economic development
  • Expanding authorities for U.S. forces to fight terrorists.

Trump said, “We will not announce our plans for further military activities. Conditions on the ground, not arbitrary timetables, will guide our strategy from now on.” Adding, “America’s enemies must never know our plans or believe they can wait us out. I will not say when we are going to attack, but attack we will.”

I can almost imagine the subdued grin rippling across Jim Mattis’s mouth--the man who Obama fired without so much as the courtesy of a phone call—as Trump announced the opacity of the Afghan strategy. 

What is the significance of a dark and impenetrable plan? James Dobbins writes for the RAND Corporation, “Perhaps most importantly, this administration should avoid setting withdrawal deadlines, as Obama repeatedly did, as these only incentivize the Taliban to wait the United States out.” Indeed, Mattis himself stated that setting arbitrary timetables and deadlines only serves to embolden the enemy "to some degree."

The president made it very clear that this is going to be about ending the war and that we “will no longer use American might to construct Democracies in foreign lands." At last, a president who heeds his war council. This news comes to the chagrin of a Taliban-sympathetic New York Times, that has made it a point to sentimentalize the disappointment of Islamists: 

Somewhere in Kandahar Province Monday morning, the Taliban’s military commander for the south, a member of the group’s ruling Quetta Shura, tuned in at 5:30 a.m. to the BBC’s Pashto service to hear a translation of Mr. Trump’s speech. Like many Taliban leaders, he said, he had hoped to hear Mr. Trump make good on early vows to quit Afghanistan.

Afghan National Security Adviser (NSA) Hanif Atmar disagrees with the Leftist narrative that the Taliban is somehow less incorrigible—or even a different entity—from the Islamic State. “This idea that Taliban and [ISIS] are opposed to each other is wrong,” he told the Times of India in March. "[ISIS] has come from Syriaor Iraq, it's actually the morphing and mutating of Taliban, TTP and IMU into [ISIS]. They are the same people, but there is a lot of re-branding here," he added.

Afghanistan is on the precipice of becoming a nexus for nearly two dozen regional and international Islamic terrorist groups—an axis that will export its malignancy at full tilt. NSA Atmar told the Times of India.

It's no longer about a lone wolf or one specific terrorist organisation. It's about the evil axis of three actors, violent extremism, criminal economics and state sponsorship of terrorists. These three have come together to challenge the legitimate state of Afghanistan and turn it into a sanctuary for international terrorism, and to expand the criminalized economy with narcotics, use its proceeds to finance terrorism.

Atmar’s rebuke of the narrative that ISIS is a dissociated group is well known, “Who is ISIS? Different terrorist groups are using ISIS as a cover. ISIS has become a brand in Afghanistan,” he told the Indian Express. “The groups are Haqqani, Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) and Taliban. Terror has unfortunately become a weapon in the hands of some countries."

Perhaps the most overlooked pillar of the president’s strategy was his commitment to applying pressure on Pakistan, a prolific sponsor of terrorists and a thorn in the side of regional peace. The most notorious in Pakistan's portfolio of terrorist cells is Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), an organization that has attempted to carve out unholy sanctuary in Afghanistan from which it can attack India, whose citizens it regularly slaughters in the streets of Kashmir.

Taking victory out of the equation, James Dobbins writes that Afghanistan is a choice between losing and not losing. “Today, the Trump administration faces the choice of losing quickly by withdrawing from Afghanistan; losing slowly by staying at the current, clearly inadequate levels of commitment; or not losing by increasing that commitment enough to maintain a stalemate on the battlefield.” Perhaps Dobbins has grown more optimistic of Afghanistan’s future after Trump’s unveiling.

How will Trump's Afghanistan be different? By all accounts, this will be a joint task between the U.S., India, and possibly a more committed China—Americans will no longer foot the full cost of an already costly war. In the wings, India stands ready to play a larger role with assisting major development programs in Afghanistan—the nation building U.S. taxpayers will no longer afford. 

New Delhi has applauded the president's recognition of Pakistan as a haven for terrorism, the Indian Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) said, “We are committed to supporting [the] Government and people of Afghanistan in their efforts to bring peace, security, stability & prosperity in their country.” 

Beyond that, Americans can expect a war that will be fought with special mission units backed by robust air support. The president stated, 

"The American people are weary of war without victory. Nowhere is this more evident than Afghanistan the longest war in American history, 17 years. I share the American people’s frustration over a foreign policy that has spent too much time, energy, money and most importantly, lives."

Trump's resolve and realism are critical, because what awaits on the other side of the door if Afghanistan is consumed by Pak and Gulf state funded terrorism may very well make the ISIS of today seem tempered.

I am reminded of a conversation with my Assyrian friend, whose family was displaced from Iraq after the U.S. toppled Saddam's regime. As Syriac Christians—in fact, the first Christians—they enjoyed relative peace under Saddam, but were hunted down and slaughtered by the regime’s spiritual successor—ISIS. Their poor station was, of course, exacerbated by Obama’s pullout—the Assyrian people share my passionate dislike for the former president.

We talked at length about why the U.S. invaded Iraq, I told her I believed it was only a matter of time before Saddam turned on Assyrians, as his regime moved toward overt fundamentalism. I defended our decision to invade but not Obama’s pullout or his disastrous foreign policy in general, and it was at this point she said something to the effect of, “What about our people?” It completely undressed me, I realized that I was looking at collateral damage.

My friend and her family, collateral damage in a war we began but did not finish under an ineffectual leader. She and her family told me that they were elated when Trump became president, because of his promises to combat Islamic fundamentalism.

She asked me again what I thought the United States might do differently under Trump against the Islamic threat that has haunted her people for a thousand years. I said, “I think the least that we can do is kill as many of them as possible.” She gave me a smile and a contented nod. That conversation was nearly a month ago and on Tuesday, the President of the United States announced, “we are killing terrorists.” 

This is not interventionism, this is reconciliation. 

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