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Iraq may serve as cautionary tale for Afghanistan

May. 28, 2014 - 06:00AM   |  
A gunman holds his weapon in January in Fallujah, Iraq.
A gunman holds his weapon in January in Fallujah, Iraq. (AP)
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WASHINGTON — The United States has been funneling tons of weapons into Iraq, including sniper rifles , tank rounds and missiles, but the country’s U.S.-trained military has not been able to dislodge Jihadists who have seized control of territory in parts of western Iraq and held it for much of this year.

The United States has expedited the weapons sales in an effort to combat extremism and deepen relations with Iraq, since all U.S. forces withdrew from the country in 2011, the State Department said.

The U.S. experience in Iraq this year in many ways exemplifies President Obama’s foreign policy as laid out this week in his plans for the withdrawal of all U.S. forces from Afghanistan by the end of 2016. It also serves as a cautionary tale.

In announcing his Afghanistan plans this week Obama said the U.S. military in Afghanistan will “draw down to a normal embassy presence in Kabul, with a security assistance component, just as we’ve done in Iraq.”

“I was surprised when the president touted the Iraq embassy model as what he is going to do in Afghanistan,” said James Jeffrey, who was serving as the U.S. ambassador to Iraq in 2011 when U.S. forces left.

The United States was left with limited influence in the country at a time when its military was severely tested by a dramatic rise in extremism earlier this year.

Iraq’s government was caught off guard in January when extremists belonging to the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, an extremist group operating in Syria and Iraq, seized control of Fallujah and parts of Ramadi, key cities in western Iraq.

In response, the State Department said it has expedited sales of weapons, including 300 hellfire missiles, an air to ground weapon, and expects to deliver 10 scan eagles, which are unarmed drones, to Iraq this summer, the department said.

The State Department also recently notified Congress of an additional sale of $1 billion in arms, including up to 200 Humvees.

U.S. special operations forces have conducted joint training with Iraqi special forces at a facility in Jordan.

The experience in Iraq reflects Obama’s strategy of partnering with foreign governments to fight extremists instead of making large troop commitments overseas.

“I believe we must shift our counterterrorism strategy — drawing on the successes and shortcomings of our experience in Iraq and Afghanistan — to more effectively partner with countries where terrorist networks seek a foothold,” President Obama said Wednesday in a major address at West Point.

But analysts worry that the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has not been a reliable partner and the United States has lost much of its influence over the government when it withdrew its forces at the end of 2011.

The United States military presence is Iraq was reduced to a small contingency in the U.S. Embassy. They are limited primarily to overseeing the sale of U.S. weapons and equipment to Iraq.

Jeffrey said Iraq’s army has done little effective training since American forces left and so many of its skills have atrophied, including its ability to conduct coordinated attacks using ground troops, artillery support and air power.

“Now they’ve got a roaring military threat and they need us,” Jeffrey said.

With its presence in Iraq the United States was in a position to emphasize its values, including the protection of minority rights, which would have helped build a more stable government, said James Mattis, a retired Marine four-star general who led U.S. Central Command, which oversaw U.S. war efforts in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Instead, the Shiite-dominated Maliki government has alienated many Sunnis, which has helped fuel the insurgency in western Iraq.

The Maliki government attempted to use Sunni tribes to help battle the extremists, but many tribes have remained on the sidelines or actively oppose the government.

The tribes, which hold powerful sway in places such as Ramadi and Fallujah in Iraq’s Anbar province, view the Maliki government as the bigger threat, said Waleed Alrawi, a retired Iraqi brigadier general now living in Florida.

By supporting the Maliki government some influential Sunnis even see the United States as taking sides in a sectarian conflict, Alrawi said.

“This is bad for a future relationship,” Alrawi said.

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