“I said I’d end the war in Iraq. I ended it.”
–President Barack Obama, Nov. 4, 2012
On March 19, Staff Sgt. Louis F. Cardin, 27, was killed during an Islamic State-launched rocket attack in Iraq.
According to reports, Cardin, of California, and several other members of his unit, came under enemy rocket fire at a base in Makhmour, southeast of the Islamic State-controlled city of Mosul, very near the front line.
He was the second U.S. troop to die in combat in the current campaign.
Competing for news coverage with what is probably the most theatrical campaign season in recent memory, the young Marine’s death garnered a paltry amount of media attention.
It should have earned more.
It was a reminder of the battle that continues in the Middle East, where U.S. troops are still at risk.
It was also a stark admonition that more than four years after the last convoy of U.S. soldiers departed from Iraq and years after President Barack Obama repeatedly credited himself with “ending” the war, the U.S. — quite predictably — is back in Iraq in a big way.
And its presence is growing.
But as Thomas Gibbons-Neff, staff writer for The Washington Post, aptly pointed out, prior to Cardin’s death the public had been blissfully unaware of the significant U.S. military presence in the young republic.
Fire Base Bell was “just days old when 107 mm rockets fired by the Islamic State group landed within its confines,” killing Cardin and wounding several other troops.
Pentagon officials, who had yet to announce the new outpost, have said the installation was so new that it was not yet fully operational when the attack came.
Still, as Gibbons-Neff explains, “in the fight against the Islamic State, the creation of a U.S. outpost indicates a noteworthy development in a battle that is largely fought from the skies.”
Indeed, despite suggestions that American “boots” would not soon again be collecting Iraqi soil, the new outposts may indicate the U.S. is building up its offensive capability in anticipation of future operations.
Ironic, isn’t it?
In the post-Iraq war era, the sometimes stealth involvement of U.S. troops in the Middle Eastern republic is hardly novel.
The Marine Corps Times recently reported that “hundreds of Marines have been quietly deploying over the last 16 months to assist the Iraqis fighting to retake territory, hard won by U.S. troops over the past decade or more, from brutal ISIS militants.”
These troops have been responsible for everything from airstrikes to aircraft recovery, training Iraqi soldiers, cargo delivery to military outposts and force protection.
In some cases, they are fulfilling the role envisioned by those military and political leaders who advocated for the U.S. military to maintain a stabilizing force in Iraq at the close of the war.
In other circumstances, they are engaging a new enemy, the Islamic State, that their vacuum, beginning in 2012 likely helped to create.
The Obama administration has insisted that leaving a stabilizing force of up to 10,000 troops in Iraq was politically untenable. The Iraqi government wanted the U.S. out.
Yet on Wednesday, the Pentagon announced it will consider opening or reopening bases from previous engagement in northern Iraq to support Iraqi forces in retaking Mosul.
Mosul fell to the Islamic State in 2014, an event that may have been altogether prevented if U.S. forces had remained in the region.
In the interest of stemming the tide of terrorism, these new military efforts may be well advised.
And they may be the correct — albeit the only available — strategy for assisting the Iraqi people as they try to free their territory from the grip of a brutal enemy.
But one way or another, the U.S. military is still waging war in Iraq, regardless of the president’s claims otherwise.
It would be ironic if Obama’s Middle East legacy is the kind of long-term stabilizing force in Iraq that he so vehemently opposed.