The dissolution of Iraq is the entirely predictable result of a series of bad American decisions compounded by Iraqi government mistakes. The result is a disaster for the Iraqi and American people and a gift to radical Islamists worldwide. Correcting the mistakes will be enormously costly in blood and treasure and will take decades to repair.
The initial and most costly mistake was the decision to invade Iraq in the first place on the misguided belief that Saddam Hussein had a stockpile of weapons of mass destruction. Ignoring the history of deterrence, through which states choose not to use these weapons against other states for fear of reprisal, post-9/11 hysteria drove an illogical and destabilizing decision to upset the balance of power in the Middle East with no plan to police the inevitable chaos that followed the invasion.
Initial errors of providing too few troops to govern Iraq after Saddam was toppled were compounded by disbanding the Iraqi army and forbidding former Ba’ath party members from future government service; together, they inspired a Sunni insurgency against the American occupation. Too-few troops who had never been trained to conduct counterinsurgency fought against an enemy they didn’t understand and could rarely see. Iraq descended into chaos.
When all seemed lost, America made its one good decision of the entire fiasco, installing Robert Gates as secretary of defense and Gen. David Petraeus as Iraq commander to implement a fully resourced counterinsurgency strategy for the first time. The surge forces battled insurgents and also partnered with reconstituted Iraq security forces. Violence plummeted, and by 2010 there was a decent chance that, with continued American air power and advisers to support Iraqi forces and compel good decisions by the fledgling Iraqi government, a democratic Iraq would emerge from the shambles of one of the biggest mistakes in American history.
We fumbled the ball at the goal line by failing to negotiate a long-term security relationship with the Iraqi government. Left on its own, the Shia government followed its worst impulses, oppressing the Sunni minority and inspiring a reinvigorated insurgency.
The summer of 2012 saw another unforced American error. We had the opportunity to support moderate Sunni insurgents fighting to depose President Bashar al-Assad of Syria, but chose to let them fight without our assistance. Al-Qaida affiliated fighters took control of the insurgency, killing many of the moderate fighters and creating an impossible choice for American policy in Syria: We could support al-Qaida or the tyrant Assad, who regularly uses chemical weapons against his own people. As in Iraq, the window to support the good guys closed, never to be reopened.
Now an unholy alliance of al-Qaida-affiliated Syrian insurgents has combined with native Sunni insurgents and captured much of the country that American forces fought so hard to secure. Without American advisers and the airpower they bring, which would easily decimate the insurgents, the Iraqi forces have simply melted away, surrendering without a fight.
Without American airpower and Special Operations Forces to control it and inspire a will to fight, there is a real chance that Baghdad will fall, just as Saigon did in 1975 when America similarly abandoned its allies without advisers and air support.
Ending wars is easy. Ending them responsibly by leaving a better peace behind is harder and more expensive, requiring the long-term commitment of troops — a tough decision we have made in the wake of every victorious war since World War II. In Iraq, as in Vietnam, we spurned the sacrifices of our own soldiers and our allies by making an expedient but shortsighted decision that, having paid the price to win the war, we would not pay the much smaller price to secure the peace.
Our negligence and dereliction of duty have given new hope to al-Qaida and may cost us a friendly government in Iraq that many of my friends died to establish. The big question now is whether, as currently planned, we will similarly devalue the work of my friends who died to give the Afghan people a chance at freedom by failing to provide that country with the advisers and airpower that would secure Afghanistan against its inevitable future enemies. We can already see the heavy cost of failing to build a better peace in Iraq.
John Nagl, an Army veteran of both Iraq wars, is the headmaster of the Haverford School in Philadelphia. He helped write the U.S. Army/Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Field Manual and is an author.