While the world’s attention has been focused on violent clashes in Egypt and reports of chemical weapons use in Syria, Iraq has been sliding back to the brink of civil war.
Sectarian violence in the country has returned to levels not seen since the U.S. troop surge and the Anbar Awakening began to stem the tide of insurgency five years ago. The deteriorating security situation and the resurgence of al-Qaeda have compelled Baghdad to seek out U.S. assistance just two years after American forces left the country.
The growing instability in Iraq is one of the negative implications of the Obama Administration’s abrupt military withdrawal that Heritage Foundation analysts warned about back in 2011. Al-Qaeda had been severely degraded in Iraq by an intensive counterterrorism campaign launched by U.S. and Iraqi forces from 2006 through 2011. But the Iraqi government could not keep up the pressure on al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) after the withdrawal of U.S. troops, especially special operations forces. Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki also added fuel to the fire by prosecuting his Sunni vice president as a terrorist and supporting divisive sectarian policies that marginalized Sunni moderates. This helped to revive AQI, which now poses a growing threat to the United States, as well as to Iraq.
In another sign of bad things to come, a recent highly sophisticated al-Qaeda attack on the notorious Abu Ghraib prison freed between 250 and 500 militants, many of them initially captured by U.S. forces. Historically, these coordinated prison breaks have led to significant operational payouts for al-Qaeda and its affiliates. Former Osama bin Laden secretary Nasir al-Wuhayshi, for example, escaped from a Yemeni prison in 2006. Al-Wuhayshi now runs al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), largely considered the operational forefront of the global al-Qaeda network. Even in the absence of a similar outcome, the attack illustrates al-Qaeda’s capacity to turn up the heat on Iraq’s already simmering sectarian tensions by putting more fighters on the ground.
It is clear that the Obama Administration put a higher priority on withdrawing from Iraq than on defeating al-Qaeda and stabilizing Iraq. That is why it should come as no surprise that U.S. interest in Iraq after the 2011 troop withdrawal has been described by Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari as “indifferent, completely.” As Iraq continues to unravel, it is increasingly apparent that the President’s see-no-evil approach is no longer tenable.
Proactive engagement centered on protecting U.S. interests and promoting peace and prosperity in Iraq is a far superior alternative to the cycle of violence and repression that has already started to emerge absent American leadership.