On the fifteenth anniversary of the Fall of Baghdad, we look back at the consequences of the biggest foreign policy mistake of US history.
On September 11, 2001, terrorism as we know it today brutally presented itself to the world. Terrorism, once a distant threat encountered in foreign lands, was without warning carried out on the front door of one of the biggest champions of democracy, the US. This event marked the beginning of a new era; the beginning of an era of ceaseless paranoia for what would come. The crashing of the Twin Towers and the Pentagon sparked a fury of panic, which would in turn lead the US into a spiral of administrative disasters. Over the next decade a new order called ISIS, far more vicious than Al-Qaeda, would grow from the seeds of US occupation in Iraq. Today ISIS has lost almost all of its territory in Iraq and Syria, but they have left behind the two countries in a mess, with casualties in the thousands for the US, jihadists, government and rebel forces. One might ask: what led to all this chaos and what is the US’ role in it?
In May, 2003, the US made possibly the biggest administrative mistake in the Middle East: the invasion of Iraq. The Bush administration asserted Saddam Hussein’s connection to Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, founder of the group that would eventually become ISIS. The birth of ISIS, the biggest repercussion to come out of the invasion, would prove to be not only a domestic threat, but also a global threat in the decades to come. The biggest reason for the that lead to the Bush administration’s invasion was the alleged weapons of mass destruction in the hands of a volatile Saddam Hussein. Intelligence gathered by the CIA suggested otherwise.
The US’ decision to depose Saddam Hussein was a grave mistake. However much of a dictator Saddam was, he was the single entity keeping Iraq from spiraling into chaos due to a military or Islamic terrorist uprising. Toppling Saddam would give more power to Abu Musab-al Zarqawi, as it would cause a power vacuum. Such a similar power vacuum happened in Afghanistan with the Mujahideen after the Soviet Union withdrew. Receiving up to $630 million in annual funding by the US, the Mujahideen was able to oust the Soviet Union. The ousting of the Soviet Union however, would cause a power vacuum just like it would later in Iraq, and the infighting between Mujahideen would cause chaos, allowing for Taliban to take advantage of the situation.
In the aftermath of the fall of Saddam Hussein, the US issued Coalition Provisional Authority Order 2, disbanding the entire Iraqi military, leaving 250,000 trained fighters angry and jobless. With such a large number of disgruntled men with nothing to do other than take to the streets and protest, Zarqawi saw them as potential recruits. Seizing the opportunity, Zarqawi planted the seeds of a military uprising that would last until 2011, now known as the Iraqi Insurgency. Through the predominant use of car bombs, the insurgency began its campaign of terror in Iraq.
Ticking Time Bomb
If there was one thing that contributed to the growth of terrorism it would be extremist ideology. Extremist ideology gave terrorists something to fight for, in a sense giving arms to mentally unarmed men. There was one place that particularly accelerated the spread of extremist ideology, and it was in the US’ plain sight: its very own detainment camps in Iraq. For years extremist ideology festered quietly through shadows, like mold spreading through the damp walls of a prison cell. In the largest US detention facility Camp Bucca, among those detained were current leader of ISIS Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, former ISIS deputy leader Abu Muslim al-Turkmani(deceased) and Haji Bakr(deceased). Jihadists utilized Camp Bucca as a recruitment center, networking with fellow Islamic fighters and adding new members along the way. However, “Most of the people” they detained were “innocent” according to former Vice President of Iraq Tariq al-Hashimi. Nonetheless, angry and vengeful, many of those who arrived innocent did not leave without being tainted by vengeful extremist ideology.
All the US had to do to further contaminate Iraq with terror was release a number of its prisoners, oblivious to their threat. The US did just that, releasing a number of prisoners that they deemed not a threat. Little did they know that their releases would be a massive contributing factor to the rise of ISIS, among the released being future ISIS caliph Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.
Anger and Retaliation
During the occupation of Iraq, the US did not succeed in gaining the trust of the Iraqi people, nor did they attempt to. The stationing of US military personnel around the country was meant to assure the Iraqi people of their safety, yet it did the complete opposite, leaving a legacy of distrust and anger. Human rights violations committed by the US further exacerbated the situation.
In June 2003, the Abu Ghraib prison scandal shocked the world. Report after report exposed evidence of US military personnel’s array of human rights violations committed against Iraqi prisoners in Abu Ghraib. Abuses included torture, rape, and forced intercourse between prisoners. The tortures and interrogations even resulted in the death of a prisoner. If the government had detected the violations and had cracked down on Abu Ghraib earlier, it might have prevented the exposing of such crimes. However, by the time the public had found out, it was too late. Retaliation was inevitable.
A year later in May 2004, a video was released of the decapitation of Nick Berg, an American hostage, carried out by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi himself. In the video Abu Musab al-Zarqawi describes the execution as a direct retaliation to Abu Ghraib violations. Berg’s beheading was only the first of many more beheadings to come.
An immediate withdrawal is likely not the answer. In Afghanistan the US made the mistake of withdrawing troops too rapidly twice, once after the Taliban was overthrown in 2001, and another time after the death of Osama bin Laden in 2011. As Secretary of Defense James Mattis put it, “Looking back on it, it’s pretty much a consensus that we may have pulled our troops out too rapidly, reduced the numbers a little too rapidly.” After the Taliban was overthrown by the US in 2001, they went into hiding, waiting for the perfect opportunity to resurface. It was inevitable that there would be a resurgence if the US pulled out its troops immediately. Today, almost 17 years since the beginning of the Taliban’s resurgence, the US is faced with the problem of another Taliban threat in Afghanistan, largely due to early withdrawal of troops and negligence by Afghan authority. As of August 2017, 13% of the districts in Afghanistan were under insurgent control or influence, compared to a year earlier in January 2016, when 6% of districts in Afghanistan were under insurgent control or influence, according to Special Inspector General for Afghan Reconstruction (SIGAR).
The same lesson can be learned from Obama’s early withdrawal from Iraq. To leave the war that George W. Bush had created was one of Obama’s top priorities, and he hoped to accomplish full withdrawal during his presidency. His decision to withdraw troops Iraq in 2011 helped play a part in the rapid acceleration in ISIS’ growth by creating a power vacuum, ISIS only 3 years later declaring a caliphate. After US military withdrawal, the rise of ISIS as an even stronger force of military destruction became of primary concern. Obama was again forced to return troops to Iraq in 2014, just as the US has been recently forced to increase its number of troops in Afghanistan.
At a press conference on April 3, US president Donald Trump announced that he has instructed its military to begin planning a withdrawal from Syria, having had a “tremendous military success against ISIS”, with the success being “close to 100%”. Yet the success is not 100%, and as long as there are even a hundred capable ISIS jihadists, there will always be a threat. Like the roots of a weed, leaving it unattended will allow for it to grow once again, waiting for the perfect opportunity to re-emerge from below the rubble. For now, remaining in Iraq and keeping a close watch on a possible terrorist resurgence would be the best option.