Guest Opinion: Mosul pulls US back into quagmire

The Baltimore Sun
July 15
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With this week’s White House announcement that the U.S. will send 560 more troops to Iraq to help retake Mosul, the largest city still controlled by the Islamic State, President Barack Obama might well have empathized with the words of Michael Corleone, the frustrated gangster played by Al Pacino in the “The Godfather” who longs to get out of the family business and go straight: “Just when I thought I was out … they pull me back in!”

Obama entered office in 2009 pledging to end the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and he hoped he had fulfilled that vow when he withdrew the last U.S. troops from Iraq at the end of 2011. But three years later he was forced to send them right back after Islamic State fighters swept into the country from Syria. The U.S. has been stuck there ever since.

The latest deployment will bring the number of American troops in Iraq to more than 4,600. That’s considerably smaller than the 130,000 the U.S. had in Iraq a decade ago, but it’s also a reminder of the difficulties America’s military has faced in trying to disentangle itself from seemingly interminable Middle East conflicts.

The Iraqis need American air power, intelligence and logistics support to drive the Islamic State out of its last major stronghold in Iraq. Mosul, a city of 2.5 million people 250 miles north of the capital, not only is of enormous military and economic importance to the Islamic State but a huge propaganda symbol of the self-styled “caliphate” that justifies the group’s existence. Most of the new U.S. troops being sent there will be based at an airfield 40 miles away that Iraqi forces captured last week. American officials say they plan to use the base as a staging area for troops and equipment during the offensive.

Last month Iraqi forces recaptured the long-besieged city of Fallujah west of Baghdad following weeks of bloody battles against entrenched Islamic State defenders. The assault there precipitated a humanitarian crisis that left some 30,000 residents trapped by the fighting without access to food, water or electricity amid reports of Islamic State fighters murdering anyone who attempted to flee and using civilians as human shields. The recapture of Mosul, with its much larger population, is expected to dwarf that battle in both scale and intensity.

Nevertheless, the biggest challenge facing the Iraqi government will only come after the fighting has ended, when officials in Baghdad will have to figure out how to bridge the sectarian and ethnic divides that have fueled the country’s violent instability. Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi has failed to do that so far and the result has been that Iraq has stumbled from crisis to crisis as a nation at war with itself. That’s not something the U.S. can fix, no matter how many troops and arms it sends to Baghdad. Only the Iraqis can make the political decisions necessary to bring peace to their country.

Obama clearly hopes the recapture of Mosul will allow him to hand off a more stable Iraq to his successor, even though the U.S. will still maintain substantial military forces both there and in Afghanistan. But America clearly is weary of its two longest wars, which were paid for dearly in blood and treasure. It will be up to the next president to figure out how to finally extricate ourselves from those conflicts — and stay out once we’re gone.