Regardless of How Messy Things Get in Iraq, We Must End the War and Finally, Fully Withdraw

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U.S. Army soldiers stand outside their armored vehicle south of Mosul.
In this Thursday, Feb. 23, 2017 photo, U.S. Army soldiers stand outside their armored vehicle on a joint base with Iraqi army south of Mosul, Iraq. (AP Photo/ Khalid Mohammed)

Daniel L. Davis is a senior fellow for Defense Priorities and a retired lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Army who deployed into combat zones four times. He is the author of "The Eleventh Hour in 2020 America." Follow him @DanielLDavis1.

The U.S. military rushed thousands of combat troops to the Middle East in 1990 to prevent Saddam Hussein from capturing Saudi oil fields and disrupting global oil supplies. More than 30 years and two major land wars later, we're still there -- and still with no plan or strategy to leave.

It is time to acknowledge the painful reality and finally, fully withdraw our troops.

Then-candidate Barack Obama promised in October 2007 that if he were elected president, he would end the Iraq war. The reason, he said, was that the United States had engaged in a "misguided war in Iraq that never should have been fought."

Now is the time, Obama firmly stated, to end the war and "start bringing our troops out of Iraq -- immediately." He won the presidency and made good on his campaign promise. The last U.S. troop withdrew from Iraq on Dec. 17, 2011.

Unfortunately, "the end" proved only a temporary hiatus.

In June 2014, a small contingent of Islamic State fighters captured several key Iraqi cities. Obama initially sent "a small number" of troops to assist Baghdad. Over the next two years, however, he continued to incrementally add to the number of troops and expand their mission so that by the end of summer 2016 there were more than 5,000 U.S. troops in Iraq, and some were helping Iraqi troops fight ISIS.

In August of that year, I conducted a fact-finding mission to the frontlines in the fight for Mosul, which I described in a September article for Politico Magazine. Having previously deployed into combat zones four times in my military career (twice into Iraq), I focused my attention on the key military and political fundamentals that most relate to success or failure in war.

My biggest concern after meeting with Kurdish political and military figures fighting ISIS at Mosul was not who would win the fight -- that was clear from the beginning: ISIS did not have the ability to hold its territory -- but on what would come next.

The coalition arrayed against ISIS was nearly all Iraqi -- Kurdish Peshmerga, Shia militias and the multi-sectarian Iraqi army. All these disparate components were "fractious, (and) mutually mistrustful" of each other," I wrote, and after being deprived of the unifying force of having a common enemy, these disparate groups "could still easily fall into civil war again." The fall of Mosul, I concluded, may simply "mark the beginning of the next nasty conflict."

Almost five years later, that concern appears to be playing out.

In a February interview, Lt. Gen. Paul Calvert, commander of American Forces in Iraq and Syria, said that, based on conversations with Iraqi leaders and government officials, "There's a significant amount of concern in terms of the possibilities of an internal Shia civil war between those that are aligned to Iran [and] those that are Shia nationalist."

In fact, added British Army Maj. Gen. Kevin Copsey, unless the Iraqi government "comes up with a proper strategy to deal with them, in five years' time, it could end up tearing the country apart."

I fear that the default answer out of Washington -- whether senior uniformed leaders or elected officials -- will be that U.S. troops "have" to stay in Iraq to stabilize the situation.

As was patently obvious during my 2016 visit -- and as these two generals confirm is still the case -- the political and military fundamentals in Iraq remain hopelessly arrayed against a peaceful end to the fighting. It didn't matter that U.S. troops kept fighting alongside Iraq for the past five years, and it won't matter if they stay the next five years. The result will be the same: continued instability. The good news for Americans, however, is that we don't need to "solve" Iraq's problems to guarantee our security.

The blunt reality is that Obama's original instincts were right in 2007. That war shouldn't have been fought, and we should have withdrawn from Iraq. He was wrong in believing the United States should have gone back in 2014. However much a threat ISIS was, the most vulnerable to their fighting were the regimes in Baghdad and Damascus. Obama never needed to redeploy troops back to Iraq in order to keep America safe.

He could have done that with our powerful ability to strike direct threats to the United States regardless of where in the world the threat originates. In like manner, even if Obama's successor believed it was necessary to keep the troops in Iraq to defeat ISIS, President Donald Trump could safely have withdrawn all our forces by 2019 when all ISIS territory had been reclaimed.

It is time that Iraq takes sole responsibility for its security. The Iraqis may have to fight harder in getting control of their territory without our help. They may continue to struggle over how to deal with their internal militia problems. But they are responsible for figuring that out, not the United States -- which, in any case, cannot solve Iraqi political challenges with our military power. It is time to finally end the war in Iraq and fully withdraw all American troops.

-- The opinions expressed in this op-ed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Military.com. If you would like to submit your own commentary, please send your article to opinions@military.com for consideration.

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