Iraq: A Veteran’s Perspective on the Fall of Tall Afar

News of the “fall” of Tall Afar to Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and other extremist groups shook me deeply this morning. Forward Operating Base (FOB) Fulda, where I was stationed in 2004, was located just west of Tall Afar. It has been ten years since I sat on the perimeter of the FOB, watching and waiting, wondering if it would all be for naught in the end. Today I wonder, with nearly 5,000 U.S. troops killed, over 30,000 wounded, hundreds of thousands of Moral Injuries and millions of Iraqis killed, wounded and displaced, for what? Never until this moment have I felt so much like it was all for nothing.

Matt Southworth in 2004 at Forward Operating Base Fulda, outside Tall Afar, Iraq.

I’ve spent much of the last few weeks processing the news about Iraq and trying, without much success, to temper my anger. Even though things have been rough for Iraqis for many years now, news of the emerging chaos has been difficult to stomach.

What is unfolding today is not a result of the U.S. leaving Iraq in 2011, as many pundits would have us all believe. These seeds were sown on March 19th, 2003. The U.S. took over the country in mere weeks with no plans for what to do once the government fell. The subsequent eight years were devastating for Iraqis, though that pain was nearly unfelt by the average person back home.

The human costs are incalculable, but will the trillions of dollars (in the long term) spent on war and veteran care do any good whatsoever for the U.S., Iraq or the world? A decade after the invasion, almost no positive effect of our involvement in Iraq remains intact and yet the talk is almost exclusively around military intervention. Why?

As innumerable military leaders speak confidently about what the U.S. should do next, they tout their “experience” in Iraq as they call for another military intervention. These military leaders — responsible for both the disaster that was the U.S. war in Iraq and the current crisis – cannot absolve themselves of their responsibility for the demise of that country. What’s more, many of these same leaders often blame the U.S. installed Iraqi government for what’s happening, rather than taking responsibility for their own missteps or calling to account the political leaders who haphazardly marched us to war.

The same generals and political figures who marched us down the war path in 2003—and subsequently failed— are now calling for a military intervention yet again in Iraq. These are the same leaders who lied about the circumstances which led to war, improperly planned the war, threw away billions and failed to deliver in nearly every strategic military endeavor. It’s maddening beyond explanation. Pulled from the dust bin of history, these former leaders are given credibility they do not deserve.

I do not understand the propensity of those reporting on the unfolding crisis in Iraq to look toward military solutions, especially with such abundant evidence that force won’t work. It was military action that made radical ideas and their most ardent followers relevant in the first place. The U.S. war gave rise to radical extremist groups that would have been unable to exist during Saddam’s regime.

The height of U.S. deployments to Iraq occurred in 2008, when there were nearly 160,000 U.S. boots on the ground. That same year, the U.S. and Iraq signed the Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) which effectively ended the war in 2011. The SOFA agreement is widely known to be a result of U.S. diplomatic and political efforts—and votes by the Iraqi Parliament—not because of those 160,000 troops. What evidence is there that air strikes could do what 160,000 troops could not? While violence was at a record low when the U.S. left in 2011, in the end it was the political and diplomatic work that brought some semblance of stability to Iraq, albeit temporary.

Even as I write, the U.S. is on a “forever war” footing. Congress passed an Authorization of the Use of Military Force (AUMF) to invade Iraq in 2002. That AUMF has outlasted its war and remains in effect today. To conduct strikes or even deploy troops, it may be as simple for President Obama as invoking this law—no new votes and no real debate required by Congress. This, to me, is the most compelling case against a permanent war footing. It is absolutely anti-democratic.

This is not an article on what should be done; rather, it’s about what would only make the situation worse. Yet perhaps there is still time to salvage the situation. The United States and international community could respond to the humanitarian crisis by launching a robust, well-funded humanitarian effort. The U.S. has a moral responsibility to address the unimaginable conditions of those fleeing the violence. The U.S. could also work with regional powers and allies to weaken ISIS through political marginalization and by blocking arms and resupply channels.

These efforts won’t solve the problems, but they may mitigate some of the damage. Our eight year war in Iraq had but one real lesson: military force cannot bring peace and stability to Iraq or anywhere else in our complicated, interconnected world. Furthering the violence with American bombs will only compound the crisis and harden the resolve of the religiously motivated violent movement dominating Iraq today. Too many have already been lost for the folly of yet another sure-to-fail military intervention.

By Matt Southworth. Cross-posted with permission from Win Without War Coalition Member FCNL.