Trump Must Learn From U.S. Mistakes in Iraq

By Sheikh Jamal Al-Dhari
Friday, March 24, 2017, 1:30 PM

Editor’s Note: The policies of former Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki left many Iraqis feeling marginalized by their new government, especially as Maliki consolidated his control after the U.S. withdrawal in 2011. By many accounts, those grievances and local distrust of the Iraqi military under Maliki’s command contributed to the ease with which the Islamic State was able to take control of western Iraq in 2014. Now that the Islamic State’s territory is receding, Iraqi Sunnis are concerned that their political fortunes will return to the pre-Islamic State status quo—or worsen. Sheikh Jamal Al-Dhari is a leader of the Zoba tribe in Iraq and, as the president of the Iraq National Project, promotes political reconciliation and greater political inclusion for Iraqi Sunnis and other minorities. He warns that Iranian-backed militias and resurgent sectarian politicians could be laying the groundwork for more exclusionary governance that will promote separatism among Iraq’s Kurds and Sunnis.


The people of Iraq have learned many lessons from the U.S. military occupation and its aftermath of anarchy, civil war, and an endless campaign of terrorism. Despite the impending defeat of the Islamic State, Iraqis remain fearful about their future. Many, myself included, still doubt the United States has learned the most important lessons of its involvement in Iraq, and worry that it will repeat the same mistakes.

President Donald Trump has publicly acknowledged that the U.S. military invasion of Iraq was a mistake. This is a necessary recognition for Iraqis to hear from any Western leader; to ignore the war’s toll would represent a grave insult and lack of respect for the death and destruction Iraqis have suffered since 2003 and continue to endure today.

However, the White House appears to only focus its resources on fighting terrorism in Iraq. We have yet to hear what the new U.S. administration’s policies, let alone its basic vision, will be for a country in which its soldiers are currently engaged in war.

Does President Trump believe the United States has a role as a credible broker in Baghdad? Will the U.S. military stay or exit from Iraq after the Islamic State is defeated? And if U.S. troops remain in the country, what capacity and role would they take? Will they balance against Iranian influence, prevent the return of the Islamic State, or serve as a political tool for the prime minister to grab power?

While he was not responsible for the disastrous mistake of his predecessor in invading Iraq, President Obama attempted and failed to bring stability to our country. His campaign promise to “end the war” in Iraq and withdraw the U.S. military did not end any wars—at least not for the Iraqi people.

To mark the end of the military occupation at the White House in December 2011, Obama publicly called Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki the elected leader of a democratic country. But Maliki was neither elected by the Iraqi people, nor did he believe in democracy. Even before his plane had returned to Baghdad from Washington, the prime minister had launched an authoritarian campaign to consolidate his political power and sought to arrest the vice president. Trusting Maliki’s leadership was a mistake, but one the Obama administration was willing to make to withdraw from Iraq.

The Obama administration’s reliance on Maliki also reflected Iran’s position. In reality, both competed to gain influence with Maliki, but the perception among many Iraqis was that an alliance had been formed between Washington and Tehran. Iraqi Sunnis believed that if the United States was aligned with Iran, there was little hope for an inclusive government in Baghdad.

The United States’ unwillingness to balance against Iran helped fuel the massive Sunni protest movement in 2012 and 2013. Maliki was backed by Washington and Tehran and did not feel compelled to make concessions to the legitimate demands of demonstrators, and the protests ended in bloodshed when the government’s security forces used deadly force against civilians in April 2013.

Defense Secretary James Mattis and National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster are two individuals with a great deal of experience in Iraq, and they have the respect of many Sunnis like myself who worked with them to fight the rise of al-Qaeda in western Iraq during the U.S. occupation. They know the dangers and consequences of past U.S. mistakes in Iraq, and in great detail. But it’s unclear if President Trump will take their advice, let alone allocate to them much authority to craft the administration’s policy toward Iraq.

Both Mattis and McMaster know from personal experience that U.S. military goals in Iraq cannot be achieved without a successful political system in place to stabilize and govern the liberated territories.

The White House must take seriously the massive challenges ahead and put forth the policies and assistance programs needed to rebuild and reconcile Iraq after the defeat of the Islamic State. Both Mattis and McMaster know from personal experience that U.S. military goals in Iraq cannot be achieved without a successful political system in place to stabilize and govern the liberated territories.

Unfortunately, neither my many Iraqi colleagues nor I have seen any serious preparations or commitment for this next phase communicated by the United States. U.S. engagement in Iraq remains fixated only on the military campaign in Mosul with little consideration of the political challenges that lie ahead. And although U.S. officials know that terrorism cannot be defeated through military means alone, I remain bewildered by their ignorant willingness to commit the same mistakes again and again.

As such, it’s no surprise that we are now witnessing Islamic State terrorist attacks return to the liberated cities of Fallujah and Ramadi. This will happen in liberated Mosul, too.

That is because across a third of the country, cities and villages are destroyed beyond livable conditions; millions of people are displaced and will remain so and basic services are non-existent. Iran’s proxy militia forces are taking control of liberated areas and victimizing the locals and even preventing families to return. And, of course, our political leaders will remain thieves of the state—too inept and corrupt to come together and offer any real solutions.

Within the next two years, Iraq will undergo a tremendous political transformation through the next provincial and parliamentary elections. Iran’s militias will compete in those elections and may come to occupy the reins of the new government in Baghdad. Under this likely scenario, it’s a real prospect that Maliki will return to power as prime minister; he has already spent much of the last year supporting political machinations in Baghdad against Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi. Another Maliki premiership could lead to the end of Iraq and a new cycle of war. The Kurds will not hesitate to declare independence, the Shiites will fight among themselves, and the Sunnis will find no option but to rebel and seek to their own state.

While Trump isn’t responsible for bringing Iraq to its breaking point, he is now the U.S. president and only one mistake away from contributing to a catastrophe. He should take U.S. policy in Iraq very seriously, aim to understand the sensitivities of its politics and history, and heed the advice of advisors like Mattis and McMaster.

If not, it will be Trump, not his predecessors who lost Iraq.