Less than one month after the attacks on 9/11 the United States began what would become a long and costly campaign against the Taliban in Afghanistan. Nobody knew at the time that this campaign would claim over 2,300 American service member’s lives and wound over 17,000, or that it would continue after fourteen years of conflict.
A year and a half later, and approximately 2,300 kilometers away from Kabul, Afghanistan, the United States began another military campaign to remove Saddam Hussein from his position of Power in Iraq. America invaded Iraq on March 20, 2003, and by April 9th it had seized control of the capital city of Baghdad. Three weeks later President George W. Bush announced from the flight deck of the USS Abraham Lincoln that major combat operations in Iraq had come to an end. Almost eight years later, in late December 2011, President Barack Obama pulled out the last of the American ground troops from Iraq. There had been 4,486 American service member deaths from the war in Iraq.
With key cities like Fallujah and Ramadi, both of which were secured by American forces at great cost, falling under control of ISIS, one has to wonder, was the war in Iraq a waste of time and life? And if it was a waste, are we about to make the same mistake by leaving Afghanistan?
With the Islamic State having claimed responsibility for the attacks in Paris last week, leaving 129 dead and about 350 wounded, and other attacks in Beirut, Egypt, and Turkey, ISIS has clearly gained the attention of world leaders. The organization currently occupies territory that stretches from Northern Syria to Central Iraq. With many of the members allegedly having ties to the former Baathist party, including commanders and fighters, it would seem that the Iraqi military that the United States rolled over so easily in 2003, has simply been lying in wait.
“The US is certainly to blame for the rise of ISIL,” said Dr. Gregory Young, a retired Navy pilot and instructor, who also teaches international affairs and political science at the CU Boulder. “There is bipartisan support that everybody agrees that America is at fault,” Dr. Young explains. “Republicans believe it's because we left too early, democrats think because we went in at all. But that is only half of it.” The American Military eventually handed over control of Iraq to the Al Maliki government, which was elected in 2006, Iraq’s first democratic elections, which quickly became corrupt, Young said. It was a combination between the corrupt Iraqi government and President Barack Obama’s political agenda of pulling out of Iraq that led to the creation of the current Islamic State.
With the absence of US troops on the ground in Iraq a power struggle quickly erupted between groups to control Iraq, creating what is called a “power vacuum” in studies such as American Strategic Culture. “Most scholars say we have to wait a while before holding elections in situations like this, similar to a civil war,” Young said. “The parties are going to go along ethnic lines.” After American troops left it became the Sunnis versus the Shiites versus the Kurds. Out of this power struggle the Islamic State came to power, which have easily overrun the Iraqi Police and Iraqi military, which the United States spent approximately $26 billion training and outfitting. ISIS now has control over hundreds of US vehicles, including tanks, which were left by the fleeing Iraqi military when ISIS took over the city of Ramadi in June 2015.
In 2006 it took the combined efforts of the United States Army, Marines, Navy SEALS, and Iraqi Security Forces, eight months to drive the insurgents out of Ramadi, in which 75 American service members were killed, along with an unknown number of Iraqi Security Forces and police, leaving an estimated 750 insurgents killed.
ISIS has also taken over the city of Fallujah, which was the target of Operation Phantom Fury in 2004, where 95 American service members lost their lives and another 560 were wounded, leaving an estimated 1,200 to 1,500 insurgents dead.
The retaking of Ramadi and Fallujah has left an emotional scar on many service members that fought in the battles, or lost friends who were there. “I can’t help but feel heartbroken, angry, and frustrated that so much time, compassion, and life was spent just to see the Iraqi cities that I was in fall into the hands of such a barbaric group like IS,” said Mario Desalvo, a staff sergeant in the Marines. “I had many fellow Marines that gave life and limb defending areas that are now in IS control.”
Another Marine, gunnery sergeant Rob Wold, believes that the loss of control over Ramadi and Fallujah was a waste of life. “Watching those cities fall was heartbreaking and it means we literally threw lives away,” Wold said.
Dr. Young believes that it is hard to consider it a waste of life this early in the conflict, mainly because there may still be some hope that an Iraqi state may still come out of the conflict with the Islamic State.
Staff sergeant Desalvo shared a short story that explained why he is angry and disappointed with the deteriorating situation of Iraq. While he was deployed in 2007 he spent time in the city of Baghdadi. The village he spent time in was small so his squad, a group of Marines ranging from 12-20 persons, was able to build rapport with the locals. His squad helped rebuild their schools and provide security for the village, he explained. “In return for our work, the village Sheik took us in as one of his own… he had a six year old daughter, Fateuma, who was the most popular local to our squad,” Desalvo said. “Last year, I learned that IS took over this small village and executed a significant number of its inhabitants. I wondered, “Was Fateuma, who was by now a blossoming teenage girl, among one of the casualties?” If not, I know that she would surely be under the authoritative reign of terrorists, doomed to live a life of unjust restriction and despair. It greatly saddens and angers me to think about what might have happened to her.”
Unfortunately Fateuma’s fate, still unknown, is not unlike many other Iraqi civilians that showed acceptance towards Coalition Forces. Many interpreters, including their families, friends, and loved ones, were tortured or executed after Coalition Forces withdrew from Iraq.
Some people, typically republicans, believe that the United States left Iraq too early, and that had the American Military stayed longer and allowed the Iraqi economy to stabilize, delayed elections, and held off on the turnover to an Iraqi government, that Iraq may have had a fighting chance of being better off than it was in 2003.
Gunnery sergeant Wold believes otherwise, claiming that, “I don't think it matters when we left Iraq. It was going to end up the same way as it now.” Akim Jones, a retired Marine staff sergeant agreed whole-heartedly with Wold that the country would inevitably slip back into its prior state. “We were put into a situation that was surrounded by lies, and it was inevitable that both cities where going to be taken back,” Jones said. “I don't think it matters when we left Iraq it was going to end up the same way as it now.”
Even Dr. Young seemed to agree with the Marines that the fate of Iraq was to fall back into the hands of the insurgency. “The government was corrupt, and the people we put into power for Iraqi military, folded in front of ISIL, and screwed up within a year,” Dr. Young said.
If the fate of Iraq after the American invasion was doomed to fail, then is the situation in Afghanistan destined to fail as well? While the Marines interviewed all agreed that the outcome of Afghanistan would be similar to that of Iraq, Dr. Young believes that the conflict in Afghanistan might have a different outcome. The difference, he points out, in Iraq and Afghanistan lays in the insurgency. The Taliban have a different political agenda than that of ISIS. “The Taliban don’t have an international agenda, they don’t want to send shooters to Paris, it’s a different ballgame,” Dr. Young said.
The Taliban, as of now, are only concerned with Afghanistan, and have no intention of trying to spread their control outside of the country’s borders. ISIS on the other hand, does have an agenda outside of Iraq and Syria, to what extent, we have yet to find out.
With ISIS claiming responsibility for attacks being carried out all over the world, it is possible that they want the United States and other Western nations to attempt a military confrontation. The Taliban doesn’t want a Western presence in Afghanistan, and has even gone as far as attempts at negotiations with the West in the last several years, including hostage releases. “The Taliban only wants control of Afghanistan, they are regional thugs, that's it,” said gunnery sergeant Wold.
Again the question has to be repeated. Is Afghanistan doomed to the same fate as Iraq? Will it fall into political unrest, civil war, and acts of barbarism? From what we have seen the answer is no. The Taliban has different plans for Afghanistan, at least for the time being. If Afghanistan is going to run its course, and the Taliban are to assume control of the country, did the United States waste time, money, and unnecessary lives in an attempt to control the region? Unfortunately it would seem the answer is yes.
“They call afghan the graveyard of empires,” Dr. Young said, referring to countries such as Russia and England that have had armed conflicts there in the past. Afghanistan is a diverse country, made up of 32.5 million people who primarily speak Pashtun and Dari, but also speak over 40 other minor languages and around 200 dialects.
“Afghanistan has been united historically because of allegiance between warlords and tribes. I’m not saying that’s evil, that’s just the nature of the way the country has always operated,” Dr. Young said. The country also has no real sense of nationalism- something common amongst countries such as the United States and the European Union.
“Can you really envision something that we can provide good governance and democracy to Afghanistan? I don’t know.”
It would seem then, that the Afghanistan will not fall into the same state of unrest as Iraq, but the idea of it following in the democratic footsteps of the West is also less than likely. Many towns in Afghanistan are isolated, and some reach elevations of 10,000 ft above sea level. Men and women who are born in these villages may never leave. They may never know that they have a president, and if they are aware of that fact, chances are they may have never heard of him or her.
Democracy may not have a place in the Middle East, according to Dr. Young. And it would seem that there is little that the Western world can do to change that.
“The only really functioning democracy in the Middle East is Turkey, and even it is at suspect at times, but generally people consider it a free and fair democracy- but it is the only one,” Dr. Young said.
“Maybe there is hope, but certainly not in any of the Arab states. Certainly not in Afghanistan.”