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How the 2011 US Troop Withdrawal from Iraq Led to the Rise of ISIS

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How the 2011 US Troop Withdrawal from Iraq Led to the Rise of ISIS

Ryan N. Mannina

Introduction

The United States was on the verge of achieving a lasting victory in the Iraq War after a costly seven-year occupation and the deaths of nearly 4,500 U.S. troops. In 2006, Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) had lost its charismatic leader and chief strategist, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. Over the next few years, the organization lost its base of support as Iraq’s Sunni tribes turned against it and began fighting beside US and Iraqi troops to eject the terrorists from their communities. By 2010, Iraq had emerged from its civil war and AQI had become irrelevant.[i] Then, President Barack Obama made two strategic mistakes that reversed that progress and sent Iraq spiraling back down the path of sectarian violence.

First, the Obama administration helped broker a power sharing deal that essentially reinstated Nouri al-Maliki as Prime Minister after his electoral defeat by a predominantly Sunni political coalition in Iraq’s 2010 parliamentary elections. This undermined the fragile foundation of Iraqi democracy and disenfranchised the Sunni minority, whose cooperation during the Sunni Awakening had been so critical to ending Iraq’s cycle of violence. Second, the administration mishandled the withdrawal of US forces in 2011, leaving the Sunnis vulnerable and the Iraqi security forces (ISF) unprepared to take responsibility for the country’s security. Almost simultaneously, a civil war broke out in Syria. The remnants of AQI—under a new name, the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS or the Islamic State)—exploited the conflict to renew their jihad and rebuild their combat power. Iraq’s Sunni minority—alienated and abandoned—began fighting back against oppression by the Maliki government. In 2014, the Sunnis welcomed ISIS back into Anbar province and helped them seize nearly a third of Iraq’s territory, establishing the physical caliphate ISIS had always dreamed of building.

Many Americans have an incorrect understanding of the conditions and decision-making that precipitated the US withdrawal from Iraq, falsely blaming the Iraqi government for refusing to deal on a new SOFA. In truth, there was no political will in the White House to maintain a US troop presence in Iraq in order to help complete the country’s democratic transition. By focusing too much on US domestic political imperatives, the Obama administration failed to set the conditions for a stable, secure, and democratic Iraq, and directly contributed to the rise of the Islamic State.

Background

It is important to understand how the US made such progress between 2006 and 2010 in order to explain the damage President Obama’s decisions caused to Iraq’s prospects for peace and stability. The US strategy prior to 2006 was based on the enemy-centric approach to counterinsurgency (COIN), essentially a war of attrition in which US forces tried to kill or capture as many insurgents as they could. By 2006, that strategy was failing. Violence in Iraq was out of control, “increasing in scope, complexity, and lethality.”[ii] Iraq was “in the grip of a deadly cycle: Sunni insurgent attacks spark[ed] large-scale Shia reprisals, and vice versa.”[iii] Breaking this cycle required a new military strategy that would provide security for the population and allow for reconciliation between the Sunnis and the Shia.

The new strategy was based on the classic population-centric counterinsurgency (COIN) approach, which emphasized protecting the population in order to break the cycle of violence.[iv] To support the change in strategy, President Bush approved a surge of 30,000 additional combat troops to Iraq in January 2007.[v] However, even with a corresponding enlargement of the Iraqi security forces, the additional troops would not reach the troop density ratio of 20 counterinsurgents for every 1,000 Iraqi citizens required—according to the military’s 2006 COIN manual—for a successful counterinsurgency campaign.[vi] To get close, the US needed to facilitate the reconciliation of the Sunnis and the Shia and convince the Sunnis to take responsibility for their own security.

The Sunni Awakening, which began just before the surge in September 2006, helped turn the tide of the war.[vii] Sunni tribal leaders, who had been passively or actively supporting the insurgency in the Sunni-dominated areas of the country, became tired of AQI’s excessive violence and rigid enforcement of Sharia law. They began to turn against AQI and fight beside American troops, instead of against them. US troops in Anbar province recognized the Awakening’s potential and fostered it. As it spread around the country, they convinced their superiors to do the same. The United States began arming and funding militia forces made up of Sunni tribesmen, incorporating them into the ISF as a police auxiliary force called the Sons of Iraq. They eventually grew to more than 110,000 in strength, which helped bring the total number of security forces in Iraq closer to the recommended troop density ratio. More importantly, the Awakening deprived AQI of its primary source of recruitment and support, and the Sons of Iraq deterred the Iraqi government from abusing Sunni communities, helping to break the cycle of violence.[viii]

The switch to a new COIN strategy and the Sunni Awakening led to dramatic progress between 2006 and 2010, but that progress was also tenuous. At its core, the Sunni insurgency had been a response to the Sunni’s exclusion from, and oppression by, Iraq’s Shia-dominated government. The Sunni tribal sheikhs formed militias to protect their communities and expel American forces, whom the Sunnis perceived to be supporting Shia death squads and militias. The Sunnis had embraced AQI as the only potential ally willing and able to help them.[ix] The Awakening was a backlash against what Sunnis viewed as AQI’s excessive and un-Islamic violence.[x] The Sunni tribal leaders’ reconciliation with the Iraqi central government and the security vacuum being filled by US and Iraqi forces were two critical components to breaking the cycle of violence.[xi] However, resolution of the insurgency’s underlying causes was still incomplete.

The United States Bets on Maliki

In 2010, US support for Nouri al-Maliki following his defeat in Iraq’s parliamentary elections disenfranchised Iraq’s Sunni minority and ultimately led them to renew their support for al Qaeda. In 2008, Maliki had emerged from Shia civil war as “undisputedly the most powerful Shia political leader” in Iraq.[xii] Some of Maliki’s opponents formed Iraqiya, a nationalist, non-sectarian coalition, with the goal of unseating him in the 2010 elections. The Iraqiya coalition was significant because it was led by a moderate, secular Shia named Ayad Allawi, but had the support of many of Iraq’s Sunni tribal leaders, who had boycotted the 2005 elections.[xiii]

The inclusion of Sunnis in the 2010 political process was critical to ensuring the government’s legitimacy and avoiding further sectarian conflict. The Sunni turnout in the March elections was stronger than expected.[xiv] The moderate Iraqiya coalition won a slight majority of seats in parliament, defeating Maliki’s State of Law Coalition. Iraqiya had even done well with Shia voters, winning 200,000 votes in Iraq’s Shia-dominated south.[xv] Iraqiya’s victory should have unseated Maliki; under Iraq’s constitution, the bloc that wins the most seats in the parliament gets the first chance to form a government and nominate a prime minister.[xvi] Instead, Maliki employed a series of political maneuvers meant to delay, undermine, and contest the election results. His tactics included allegations of election fraud, demands for recounts, disqualification of Iraqiya candidates under the guise of de-Baathification, and obtaining a reinterpretation of the constitution from Iraq’s supreme court allowing him the first chance to form a government.[xvii]

The Obama administration’s decision to support Maliki, despite his legally dubious methods of contesting the election results, undermined Iraq’s democratic process. The vast majority of Iraqis did not support Maliki’s bid to form a government and remain prime minister. Most believed Iraqiya should have the first chance to form a government, and a plurality supported Allawi for prime minister.[xviii] However, Obama administration officials, fixated on leaving Iraq as quickly as possible, grew impatient after six months passed without progress.

US officials became convinced that “the quickest way to form a government was to keep Maliki as prime minister, and to cajole other Iraqis into accepting this.”[xix] Vice President Joe Biden pressured Allawi to give up his bid to form a government and accept Maliki as prime minster.[xx] Obama’s team then helped negotiate a power sharing arrangement in which Maliki would remain the prime minister and Allawi would head a new high-level council, the National Council for Higher Policies, which would be endowed with important responsibilities in the new government.[xxi] In the end, the council was never formed, and Allawi never joined the government.

The Obama administration needed a functioning Iraqi government in place to facilitate the withdrawal of US forces from Iraqi in 2011. In the interest of political expediency, the administration essentially strong-armed Iraqiya into accepting a power sharing arrangement that was not representative of the will of the Iraqi electorate. Somehow, despite his bloc losing the election, Maliki ended up more powerful than ever, having obtained the United States’ tacit support in undermining Iraq’s democratic processes. This result helped fuel renewed sectarian grievances, which were held in check by the continuing presence of American troops.

US Troop Withdrawal - A Foregone Conclusion

The legal basis for the presence of US troops in Iraq in 2011 was the status of forces agreement (SOFA) signed by President Bush and Prime Minister Maliki in December 2008. Although the SOFA included an aspirational timeline for the complete withdrawal of American troops by the end of 2011, both US and Iraqi officials agreed that the timeline could be extended by a simple exchange of diplomatic notes.[xxii] However, US policy changed substantially at President Obama’s direction in 2011, as the administration reluctantly considered whether to keep a residual force in Iraq after the end of the year.

President Obama entered office in January 2009 determined to fulfill his campaign promise of ending the Iraq War and withdrawing all US forces from Iraq. He accomplished this by employing ambiguity throughout the 2011 negotiations and setting an unachievably high bar for an agreement authorizing a residual force, which allowed him to deflect political blame when negotiations failed. He used three methods to ensure a new SOFA was unachievable. First, he refused to authorize US negotiators to make an explicit offer to the Iraqi government to leave US troops in the country. Second, he insisted that a residual force could only remain under a new SOFA, ratified by the Iraqi parliament. Third, he demanded immunity for US troops from prosecution in Iraqi courts. By establishing ostensibly reasonable terms that he knew were unlikely to gain support in Iraq, President Obama avoided much of the political backlash that would have been associated with a unilateral withdrawal.

Throughout the negotiations, Obama kept his intentions ambiguous. He repeatedly trumpeted his plan to withdraw all remaining US troops from Iraq by the end of 2011, even as his military advisors almost unanimously supported a continued presence of 10,000 to 20,000 troops.[xxiii] Iraqi officials also understood that they needed American troops to continue training and advising the Iraqi security forces, and to help protect Iraq’s borders.[xxiv] In May 2011, Prime Minister Maliki indicated that he too would support a continued American military presence.[xxv] Under pressure from his commanders and some of his cabinet officials, Obama indicated in May that he was prepared to keep up to 10,000 troops in Iraq, which he revised to about 5,000 troops by August. However, that number was a closely guarded secret, and he never authorized his negotiators to convey to the Iraqi government how many troops he was willing to keep in Iraq.[xxvi] This ambiguity led to uncertainty on the Iraqi side—without an offer from the United States, there was nothing for Iraq’s leaders to debate or negotiate.

Obama’s insistence that US troops could only remain in Iraq under new SOFA came as a surprise to both US negotiators and to Prime Minister Maliki, who had been working off the understanding that the US presence could be extended through an exchange of diplomatic notes. The Bush administration had spent nearly a year negotiating the 2008 SOFA, but the Obama administration did not begin negotiations until June 2011, less than six months prior to the planned completion of the US troop withdrawal.[xxvii] The condensed negotiation timeline added to the confusion and ambiguity, complicating the new agreement’s chances of success.

Obama’s insistence on legal immunity for US troops, while ostensibly reasonable, was an artificial barrier designed to kill the deal. When the same issue had arisen in 2008, Bush’s lead negotiator, Brett McGurk, had devised a creative solution. He asserted that it was possible to “offer the Iraqis in principle what they say they need… while retaining in practice essential protections for all US military personnel in Iraq [original emphasis in bold].”[xxviii] The 2008 SOFA granted Iraq the “primary right to exercise jurisdiction” over US troops in cases of “grave premeditated felonies… when such crimes are committed outside agreed facilities and areas and outside duty status.”[xxix] However, accused persons would remain in US custody, and it was understood that, in practice, no US servicemember would be tried before the Iraqi judicial system.[xxx] Obama refused to accept this solution, which had already been passed in Iraq’s parliament and had been implemented without incident in the intervening period.

Obama’s negotiators knew that his demand for legal immunities would never make it through the Iraqi parliament.[xxxi] Knowing that parliamentary ratification was unlikely, Obama was negotiating in bad faith. The Bush administration had determined in 2008 that ratification was unnecessary.[xxxii] The Obama administration’s position was that approval in parliament was necessary for the agreement to be binding under international law.[xxxiii] However, as lawmakers in the United States pointed out, US personnel operate in many countries under executive agreements or exchanges of diplomatic notes, neither of which require parliamentary ratification.[xxxiv] Furthermore, the phrase “binding under international law” is, in practice, essentially meaningless. By its own definition, the U.S. State Department considers any international agreement “to be legally binding in the absence of an express provision indicating its nonlegal nature.”[xxxv]

In October 2011, Iraqi leaders approved the continued presence of US military trainers but refused to grant them immunity. This ended the SOFA negotiations, and the 45,000 remaining US troops withdrew from Iraq by the end of the year.[xxxvi] The withdrawal of US troops led to the deterioration of the Iraqi security forces, the reemergence of a security vacuum in parts of the country, and the oppression of the Sunnis, laying the groundwork for the return of AQI.

President Obama’s support for Maliki and withdrawal of US troops from Iraq reversed the tenuous progress made since the Sunni Awakening and the US strategy shift in 2007. The decision to back Maliki for a second term as prime minister profoundly undermined the development of a legitimate Iraqi government, the primary objective of counterinsurgency.[xxxvii] Passive US support for Maliki’s reinterpretation of the Iraqi constitution to serve his own purposes signaled to Iraqis that the US did not believe they deserved to choose their own leaders. The second and third order effects were disastrous.

ISIS Rises from the Ashes of AQI

After US forces left Iraq, Maliki aggressively consolidated power and began oppressing Iraq’s Sunni tribes. One day after the last US troops withdrew from Iraq, Maliki forced his Sunni vice president into exile, then had him charged and convicted in absentia for supporting terrorism.[xxxviii] Under the guise of counterterrorism and de-Baathification, his government arrested Sunni elites who attempted to challenge his authority, many of whom were subsequently tortured and killed.[xxxix] Sunnis lost positions of power in the government and security forces. In December 2012, the ISF raided the home of Iraq’s minister of finance, a popular Sunni politician and member of the Iraqiya coalition. Sunni protests broke out in Fallujah and spread throughout the country, continuing for more than a year. Iraqi security forces responding to the protests in Hawija killed between 23 and 44 civilians, some of whom were shot execution-style with their hands bound behind their backs.[xl]

Maliki’s systematic persecution of the Sunnis in the wake of the US withdrawal bred the same kind of resentment that had fueled the Sunni insurgency in 2005-2006. The Sunnis harbored deep-seated distrust for Maliki and had accused him in 2006 of complicity in the killing of Sunnis by Shia militias.[xli] Protection and support from US troops and promises of inclusion in the Iraqi government had turned the Sunnis against the insurgency and AQI, but the failed US-backed power sharing agreement and subsequent troop withdrawal robbed them of both incentives. After suffering more than a year of abuses at the hands of the ISF, the tribes once again sought help in fighting back against Maliki’s government.

The alliance between the Sunnis and ISIS began in Ramadi in December 2013. Maliki sent Iraqi security forces into Ramadi to break up the demonstrations, resulting in violent clashes with the protesters, which spilled into neighboring Fallujah. A few days later, ISIS fighters entered Fallujah and teamed up with Sunni tribal leaders and former Baathists, eventually forcing the evacuation of the ISF and the remnants of Fallujah’s government. Once again, the jihadists had exploited Iraq’s sectarian conflict to gain a foothold in Anbar. The tribal leaders came to see ISIS as an ally in their tribal revolution. An influential Sunni sheikh described ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi as the defender of 15 million Iraqi Sunnis.[xlii] Empowered by Sunni popular support, ISIS seized Fallujah, parts of Ramadi, and Mosul by June of 2014. Mosul alone enriched ISIS with $480 million in stolen cash and two divisions’ worth of weapons and equipment, including armored Humvees, rockets, ammunition, and assault weapons.[xliii] In six months, ISIS had gone from being mocked as a terrorist “JV team” to the world’s most well-funded and best equipped terrorist army. US policy in Iraq between 2010 and 2011 directly contributed to this evolution by creating the conditions in which ISIS could flourish.

Conclusion

Opponents of the argument outlined above might argue that the requirement for a new SOFA and the inclusion of status protections for US troops were appropriate and were supported by officials in the US Department of Defense. In 2014, Obama sent US troops back into Iraq—with status protections—where they remain to this day, under an exchange of diplomatic notes and without a SOFA ratified by the Iraqi government.[xliv] This essentially proves that parliamentary ratification was an artificial barrier self-imposed by the Obama administration in 2011.

Others might argue that a residual force of 5,000 to 10,000 US troops would not have made a difference in preventing AQI’s growth and evolution. However, it is extremely unlikely that the ISF would have atrophied like it did, given continued training and assistance, especially in terms of its logistical capabilities. Embedded US advisors—and the capabilities they provide in terms of air power, fire support, and intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance—would have given the ISF some backbone and encouraged them to stand and fight against ISIS. Ultimately, the Sunni uprising may never have happened because US advisors might have deterred Maliki from purging the ISF of Sunni officers and protected Sunni protesters during the government crackdown in 2013. Even a small US military presence would have allowed the United States to monitor the growing threat from ISIS in Iraq and Syria and develop more effective options with which to counter it. After all, the US force that ultimately helped the ISF eject ISIS from Iraqi cities in 2016 consisted of only about 5,000 advisors and special operations forces.[xlv]

A final counterargument is that AQI had been defeated by the time US troops left Iraq, and President Obama could not have foreseen its reemergence; only with the benefit of hindsight can we now explain how the US withdrawal contributed to the rise of ISIS. To the contrary, the Director of National Intelligence stated in February 2011 that AQI would “continue to be a persistent security problem,” and would “almost certainly continue high profile attacks in an attempt to reignite sectarian warfare and discredit the Iraqi Government.”[xlvi] The outbreak of the Syrian civil war was a critical factor in the rise of ISIS that was admittedly beyond Obama’s control. However, by October 2011, it was clear that the crisis in Syria was escalating, and that the ISF was incapable of securing Iraq’s borders. Syria had long been a key hub and safe haven for foreign fighters and Baathists conducting or supporting terrorist attacks in Iraq.[xlvii] Consequently, it should have been possible to foresee that the remnants of AQI would exploit the Syrian civil war as it had the one in Iraq.

The current situation in Iraq is somewhat analogous to 2011. The US-led coalition to defeat ISIS has destroyed the Islamic State’s physical caliphate in Iraq and Syria, but the organization is not defeated. The Department of Defense believes that “ISIS is probably still more capable than [AQI] at its peak in 2006-2007,” and “is well-positioned” to rebuild its physical caliphate.[xlviii] Moreover, the underlying causes of conflict in Iraq, which allowed for the birth of AQI and its rebirth as the Islamic State, have not disappeared. Iraqi democracy is still in its infancy from a historical standpoint, and sectarian conflict in the country remains an ever-present threat. The ISF, while vastly improved since their collapse in 2014, remain reliant on the assistance and support of the US military. Much like the 2011 withdrawal from Iraq, the withdrawal of US forces from Syria is now a foregone conclusion. But as the United States prepares to withdraw from Syria, policymakers would do well to learn from past mistakes and continue to employ all the instruments of national power to stabilize Iraq, improve its democratic institutions, and prevent it from once again becoming fertile ground for jihad.

This paper represents the opinions of the author and should not be taken to represent the views of the Department of the Army, the Department of Defense, or the United States government.

Works Cited

Abdulrazaq, Tallah, and Gareth Stansfield. “The Enemy Within: ISIS and the Conquest of Mosul.” The Middle East Journal 70, no. 4 (2016). https://muse.jhu.edu/article/634688.

“Agreement Between the United States of America and the Republic of Iraq On the Withdrawal of United States Forces from Iraq and the Organization of Their Activities during Their Temporary Presence in Iraq.” Conclusion date: November 17, 2008. U.S. Department of State. https://www.state.gov/documents/organization/122074.pdf.

Baker, James A. et al., “The Iraq Study Group Report” (Baker Institute for Public Policy, December 5, 2006). https://www.bakerinstitute.org/research/the-iraq-study-group-report/.

Chulov, Martin, Fazel Hawramy, and Spencer Ackerman. “Iraq Army Capitulates to Isis Militants in Four Cities.” The Guardian. June 11, 2014. sec. World News. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/jun/11/mosul-isis-gunmen-middle-east-states.

Department of the Army. Counterinsurgency, FM 3-24. (Washington, D.C.: Department of the Army, 2006). https://usacac.army.mil/cac2/Repository/Materials/COIN-FM3-24.pdf.

Fadel, Leila. “Iraqi Officials Put Voter Turnout at 62 Percent.” Washington Post. March 9, 2010. http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2010/03/08/AR2010030801766.html.

Gordon, Michael R., and Bernard E. Trainor. The Endgame: The Inside Story of the Struggle for Iraq, From George W. Bush to Barack Obama (New York: Pantheon Books, 2012).

“Iraq: Parliament Report Alleges Officials Ordered Raid.” (Baghdad: Human Rights Watch, May 4, 2013). https://www.hrw.org/news/2013/05/04/iraq-parliament-report-alleges-officials-ordered-raid.

“Iraqis Discouraged by Post-Election Government Negotiations.” National Democratic Institute. July 30, 2010. https://www.ndi.org/Iraqis_Discouraged_Post_Election.

Kilcullen, David. Blood Year: The Unraveling of Western Counterterrorism (New York: Oxford University Press, 2016).

Montgomery, Gary M., and Timothy S. McWilliams. Al Anbar Awakening Vol II, Iraqi Perspectives (Quantico: Marine Corps University Press, 2009).

Mulligan, Stephen P. “International Law and Agreements: Their Effect upon U.S. Law.” CRS Report for Congress (Washington, D.C.: Congressional Research Service, September 19, 2018). https://fas.org/sgp/crs/misc/RL32528.pdf.

Pollack, Kenneth M. “The Fall and Rise and Fall of Iraq,” Middle East Memo (Washington: Brookings, July 2013). https://www.brookings.edu/research/the-fall-and-rise-and-fall-of-iraq/.

Rayburn, Joel. Iraq After America: Strongmen, Sectarians, Resistance (Stanford, CA: Hoover Institution Press, 2014).

Reiss, Mitchell B., and Peter Feaver. “What Happened to Immunity for U.S. Troops in Iraq?” Foreign Policy. November 19, 2014. https://foreignpolicy.com/2014/11/19/what-happened-to-immunity-for-u-s-troops-in-iraq/

Ricks, Thomas E. The Gamble: General David Petraeus and the American Military Adventure in Iraq, 2006-2008 (New York: The Penguin Press, 2009).

Seldin, Jeff. “Islamic State ‘Well-Positioned’ to Rebuild Caliphate.” VOA. August 16, 2018. https://www.voanews.com/a/islamic-state-well-positioned-to-rebuild-caliphate/4530937.html.

Sky, Emma. The Unraveling: High Hopes and Missed Opportunities in Iraq (New York: Public Affairs, 2015).

Thompson, Mark. “Number of U.S. Troops in Iraq Keeps Creeping Upward.” Time. April 18, 2016. http://time.com/4298318/iraq-us-troops-barack-obama-mosul-isis/

U.S. Congress. House of Representatives. Committee on Foreign Affairs. Report on Iraq to the House Committee on Foreign Affairs: Hearing before the Committee on Foreign Affairs. 112th Cong., 2nd sess., 2008. https://congressional-proquest-com.proxy.library.georgetown.edu/congressional/docview/t29.d30.hrg-2008-foa-0045?accountid=11091.

U.S. Congress. Senate. Committee on Armed Services. Security Issues Relating to Iraq, Hearing before the Committee on Armed Services. 112th Cong., 1st sess., 2011. https://congressional-proquest-com.proxy.library.georgetown.edu/congressional/docview/t29.d30.hrg-2011-sas-0025?accountid=11091.

U.S. Congress. Senate. Committee on Foreign Relations. US Policy in Syria: Hearing before the Subcommittee on Near Eastern and South and Central Asian Affairs, Committee on Foreign Relations. 112th Cong., 1st sess., 2011. https://congressional-proquest-com.proxy.library.georgetown.edu/congressional/docview/t29.d30.hrg-2011-for-0037?accountid=11091.

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End Notes

[i] Joby Warrick, Black Flags: The Rise of ISIS (New York: Doubleday, 2015), 246.

[ii] James A. Baker et al., “The Iraq Study Group Report” (Baker Institute for Public Policy, December 5, 2006), 3, https://www.bakerinstitute.org/research/the-iraq-study-group-report/.

[iii] Ibid, 4.

[iv] Department of the Army, Counterinsurgency, FM 3-24, (Washington, D.C.: Department of the Army, 2006), 5–2, https://usacac.army.mil/cac2/Repository/Materials/COIN-FM3-24.pdf.

[v] Thomas E. Ricks, The Gamble: General David Petraeus and the American Military Adventure in Iraq, 2006-2008 (New York: The Penguin Press, 2009), 122.

[vi] Department of the Army, Counterinsurgency, 1–13.

[vii] Ricks, 72.

[viii] David Kilcullen, Blood Year: The Unraveling of Western Counterterrorism (New York: Oxford University Press, 2016), 46.

[ix] Kenneth M. Pollack, “The Fall and Rise and Fall of Iraq,” Middle East Memo (Washington: Brookings, July 2013), 4, https://www.brookings.edu/research/the-fall-and-rise-and-fall-of-iraq/.

[x] Gary W. Montgomery and Timothy S. McWilliams, Al Anbar Awakening Vol II, Iraqi Perspectives (Quantico: Marine Corps University Press, 2009), 132.

[xi] Ibid, 47.

[xiii] Emma Sky, The Unraveling: High Hopes and Missed Opportunities in Iraq (New York: Public Affairs, 2015), 313.

[xiv] Leila Fadel, “Iraqi Officials Put Voter Turnout at 62 Percent,” Washington Post, March 9, 2010, http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2010/03/08/AR2010030801766.html.

[xv] Michael R. Gordon and Bernard E. Trainor, The Endgame: The Inside Story of the Struggle for Iraq, From George W. Bush to Barack Obama (New York: Pantheon Books, 2012), 618.

[xvi] Rayburn, 47.

[xvii] Gordon and Trainor, 618.

[xviii] “Iraqis Discouraged by Post-Election Government Negotiations,” National Democratic Institute, July 30, 2010, https://www.ndi.org/Iraqis_Discouraged_Post_Election.

[xix] Sky, 336.

[xx] Ibid, 334.

[xxi] Gordon and Trainor, 629.

[xxii] McGurk, Brett (Special Presidential Envoy for the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS), interviewed by Ryan N. Mannina, Washington, DC, November 2, 2018.

[xxiii] Gordon and Trainor, 659.

[xxiv] Ibid, 655-7.

[xxv] Ibid, 663.

[xxvi] Ibid, 665.

[xxvii] McGurk.

[xxviii] Gordon and Trainor, 549.

[xxix] “Agreement Between the United States of America and the Republic of Iraq On the Withdrawal of United States Forces from Iraq and the Organization of Their Activities during Their Temporary Presence in Iraq,” Conclusion date: November 17, 2008, U.S. Department of State, 10, https://www.state.gov/documents/organization/122074.pdf.

[xxx] Sky, 266.

[xxxi] McGurk.

[xxxii] U.S. Congress, House of Representatives, Committee on Foreign Affairs, Report on Iraq to the House Committee on Foreign Affairs: Hearing before the Committee on Foreign Affairs, 112th Cong., 2nd sess., 2008, 91, https://congressional-proquest-com.proxy.library.georgetown.edu/congressional/docview/t29.d30.hrg-2008-foa-0045?accountid=11091.

[xxxiii] U.S. Congress, Senate, Committee on Armed Services, Security Issues Relating to Iraq: Hearing before the Committee on Armed Services, 112th Cong. (2011) (statement of Hon. Leon E. Panetta, Secretary of Defense).

[xxxiv] U.S. Congress, Senate, Committee on Armed Services, Security Issues Relating to Iraq, Hearing before the Committee on Armed Services, 112th Cong., 1st sess., 2011, 89, https://congressional-proquest-com.proxy.library.georgetown.edu/congressional/docview/t29.d30.hrg-2011-sas-0025?accountid=11091.

[xxxv] Stephen P. Mulligan, “International Law and Agreements: Their Effect upon U.S. Law,” CRS Report for Congress (Washington, D.C.: Congressional Research Service, September 19, 2018), 13, https://fas.org/sgp/crs/misc/RL32528.pdf.

[xxxvi] Gordon and Trainor, 670.

[xxxvii] Department of the Army, Counterinsurgency, 1-21.

[xxxviii] Tallah Abdulrazaq and Gareth Stansfield, “The Enemy Within: ISIS and the Conquest of Mosul,” The Middle East Journal 70, no. 4 (2016): 526, https://muse.jhu.edu/article/634688.

[xxxix] Ibid, 526.

[xl] Iraq’s defense ministry claimed that 23 people were killed, while an investigative committee appointed by the Iraqi parliament found that the number was 44. See “Iraq: Parliament Report Alleges Officials Ordered Raid” (Baghdad: Human Rights Watch, May 4, 2013), https://www.hrw.org/news/2013/05/04/iraq-parliament-report-alleges-officials-ordered-raid.

[xli] Rayburn, 26.

[xlii] Warrick, 299.

[xliii] Martin Chulov, Fazel Hawramy, and Spencer Ackerman, “Iraq Army Capitulates to Isis Militants in Four Cities,” The Guardian, June 11, 2014, sec. World News, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/jun/11/mosul-isis-gunmen-middle-east-states.

[xlv] Mark Thompson, “Number of U.S. Troops in Iraq Keeps Creeping Upward,” Time, April 18, 2016, http://time.com/4298318/iraq-us-troops-barack-obama-mosul-isis/.

[xlvi] U.S. Congress, Senate, Select Committee on Intelligence, Current and Projected National Security Threats to the United States: Hearing Before the Select Committee on Intelligence, 112th Cong., 1st sess. (2011), (statement of Hon. James R. Clapper, Jr., Director of National Intelligence).

[xlvii] U.S. Congress, Senate, Committee on Foreign Relations, US Policy in Syria: Hearing before the Subcommittee on Near Eastern and South and Central Asian Affairs, Committee on Foreign Relations, 112th Cong., 1st sess., 2011, 38, https://congressional-proquest-com.proxy.library.georgetown.edu/congressional/docview/t29.d30.hrg-2011-for-0037?accountid=11091.

[xlviii] Jeff Seldin, “Islamic State ‘Well-Positioned’ to Rebuild Caliphate,” VOA, August 16, 2018, https://www.voanews.com/a/islamic-state-well-positioned-to-rebuild-caliphate/4530937.html.

 

About the Author(s)

Captain Ryan N. Mannina is an infantry officer in the U.S. Army. His previous assignments include one deployment to Iraq with the 3rd Infantry Division, two deployments to Afghanistan with the 75th Ranger Regiment, and 25 months in command of a Stryker-equipped infantry company and a Stryker battalion headquarters company. He holds a Bachelor’s degree from the United States Military Academy at West Point and is currently completing a Master’s degree in Security Studies at Georgetown University’s Walsh School of Foreign Service. He tweets at @rmannina86.

Comments

Ryan,

Good points and I agree with the points about "Mosul, Fallujah, and parts of Ramadi in 2014". 

"The capture of those three cities and the surrounding territories enriched ISIS immensely, giving them the capital, arms, equipment, and ammunition they needed to continue their territorial expansion in Iraq and Syria." 

Vicrasta, thanks for your comments. That all looks about right in terms of the timeline of leadership transitions and name changes. I chose not to detail those in this article because the history and evolution of ISIS have been examined in great detail elsewhere (I strongly recommend Black Flags: The Rise of ISIS by Joby Warrick).

 

The purpose of this article was to describe the effects of the US troop withdrawal in 2011 on the organization's rise from what it was in 2008 (nearly irrelevant) to what it became in 2014 (the world's most well-equipped and well-funded terrorist army). In my view, the US troop withdrawal was necessary for ISIS to make that transition, although certainly not sufficient on its own. Specifically, I do not believe that ISIS could have seized Mosul, Fallujah, and parts of Ramadi in 2014 if even a small number of US forces had remained in the country after 2011. The capture of those three cities and the surrounding territories enriched ISIS immensely, giving them the capital, arms, equipment, and ammunition they needed to continue their territorial expansion in Iraq and Syria.

Vicrasta

Mon, 12/24/2018 - 5:14pm

Ryan, 

This is well written, but I think there are some timeline and leadership gaps. 

I served in Iraq during the "troop surge" (April 2007-June 2008) and 13 months later (Sept 2009-June 2010). Stryker Infantry PL and CO roles in Baghdad and Baqubah. I remember "night letters" bearing the letterhead of "The Islamic State of Iraq" or "Ad-Dawla Islamiyah fils Iraq" (ISI) as early as 2008 in Baqubah. I still have copies of the letters in my archives, so I'll review the dates. These letters were published after the death of Abu Musab in 2006 and outline the transition of AQI-ISI-ISIS.  Abu Ayyub later filled the leadership vacuum and was proclaimed prime minister of the ISI from 2009-2010. He did not last very long and Abu Omar succeeded him. He did not last long either and was replaced by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.

Abu Bakr expanded the ISI in Syria, broke with AQ, and announced ISIL/ISIS in 2013. All of this did not happen overnight and capitalized on earlier AQI objectives. The so-called "Caliphate" announced in 2014 is the output of hybrid threat transition and adaptation based on local, regional and multinational inputs going back sooner than 2011. 

Will, thanks for your feedback. I agree with you regarding the similarities in the OE today as compared with 2011, but I don't know enough about the dynamics in Syria, specifically, to write an authoritative piece on how exactly the two situations/environments compare/contrast. It sounds like you know a lot more about it - maybe you should consider writing a piece? I'm sure SWJ would love to publish it and I think it would be a great complement to this piece.

Best,

Ryan

pitt5525

Mon, 12/24/2018 - 12:43pm

Ryan,

I would like to commend you on your article. It broadly matches my recollection of the events of 2011 in Iraq. I was on the Special Operations Task Force – North (SOTF-N) staff in Tikrit during the critical period you describe from May to October 2011. It was a chaotic period to put it politely. SOTF-N invested considerable resources in preparing for the stay behind force you describe, particularly in Mosul and Kirkuk. Effectively, SOTF-N would have been drawn down to AOB-N and would have continued to conduct FID operations with a select group of partner elements in AOR-N. While I agree with some of Bill’s points about lasting victory and COIN being oversold. I do believe that a stay behind force in the form of SOTF-Iraq (SOTF-I) and AOB-N within that construct would have significantly altered events in 2012 and beyond. 

The linchpin to the alternate historic success of the SOTF-I construct would have been addressing the point you make about Maliki purging Sunnis from leadership roles particularly in the Iraqi security forces (ISF). Our analysis in 2011 projected the purge of Sunni leadership, but did not identify the rise of a radical Salafist army that would control such a large territory straddling the Iraq/Syria border. We anticipated a return to the sectarian civil conflict of 2006-7 with unchecked intensification and greater involvement of external regional actors.

The critical mass of insurgent actors that became ISIS was facilitated by the convergence of two prominent groups active in northern Iraq during Operation New Dawn, the successor to Operation Iraqi Freedom. The two groups were Jaish-Rijal-al Tariq- al Naqshabandi (JRTN), which was effectively the die hard remnants of the Ba’ath Party’s security establishment, and Islamic State of Iraq (ISI), the successor organization to al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI). The combination of these two groups provided ISIS with organizational expertise to run a large paramilitary organization and the propaganda, recruiting, and informational branding of a globally recognized Salafist organization. This witch’s brew enabled the command, control, communication, computer, and intelligence (C4I) reach and success of ISIS as it achieved and expanded its initial battlefield successes in AOR-N and AOR-W. Finally, the total collapse of ISF in Mosul in 2012 and the capture of their equipment, which you identified, was leveraged by the organization described above to create synergistic successes in both the expansion of their lodgment and driving their narrative in the informational domain, thus driving recruiting and sustaining what would become the caliphate.  

Your article is incredibly timely because the Executive is on the verge of repeating this mistake in Syria for which he laid bare his predecessor. Perhaps it is not as evident that the conditions are similar because the actors may have changed but the general operating environment bears significant similarities to seven years ago. In the current case it is the Kurds who will be effectively abandoned to the machinations of their historic adversary, the Turks, while a significant number of residual ISIS operatives are active in the Euphrates River valley. If the history of the Peshmerga is a guide the Kurds may demonstrate more cohesiveness when under threat than did the ISF in 2011, but there are political and clan divisions among the Kurds that must not be overlooked. Furthermore, the U.S. ally, the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), is ethnically heterogenous including Arab and other ethnic elements in its ranks along side the Kurds. The SDF will be vulnerable to information operations and disintegration along ethnic and geographic lines, as fighters may feel compelled to return to their places of origin to defend home and hearth directly.

While lasting victory may indeed be a unicorn, maintaining alliances and honoring commitments through limited troop deployments and FID, UW, and some direct action operations is in the interest of the United States and its citizens. Regional stability is a core interest for the United States from the military, diplomatic and economic perspectives. The potential for a resurgent ISIS reclaiming its caliphate or for a broader regional war as regional powers, read Iran and KSA, seek to fill a vacuum poses a clear threat to U.S. interests, particularly with a NATO Article V ally in such close proximity to the conflict, and seeking to intervene. 

I hope we can learn from the mistake you have elucidated here, but we should prepare for a redux of 2014.

Best,

-Will

Passionately argued, but only a young person could believe in the myth of a "lasting" victory with the house of cards we helped construct in Iraq. Those who hyper-promoted our so called modern COIN doctrine for self-interests first argued it takes 10 years of COIN operations to be successful, then 20, and now 30 (Iraq, Afghanistan, Philippines, etc.) as though a continuation of bad policy and its associated flawed strategy will simply work based on staying longer. Frankly, there are some problems "we" can't solve, but we can employ military force to protect our interests.  There is a significant difference between protecting our interests and solving another country's or culture's problems.  Protecting our interests also means not wasting precious resources on false hopes.   

Regardless of whether we stayed longer the power struggles between the various identity groups in Iraq and the region writ large would have erupted (as though they ever stopped). In many ways we are fortunate the ISIS influence in Iraq was relatively contained to select areas (a large areas, but still contained).  There is also something to be said about a nation facing an existential threat a motivation factor to force them to get their business right.

These problems go back centuries, even before Sykes-Picot created new ones. This story is far from over, and we obviously will have to stay engaged at some level to prevent strategic threats to our interests, but we can't own or solve their problem.