Listening to the debate between Clinton and Trump, I realized that some folks have already forgotten what really happened during the Iraq War. It ended just a few years ago, yet, there are some serious mis-understandings about it. For one thing, Donald Trump blames the Obama administration for leaving Iraq in a vacuum. Yes, when we left, there was a power vacuum. ISIS or ISIL has moved into that power vacuum. But, we had little choice. The date for our departure was set by treaty. That agreement was negotiated and signed by the Bush administration. The problem at the time was that Iraq as a whole was dearly afraid we would never leave. Many Iraqis, Sunni and Shia, were convinced we came for the oil. Even in my small corner of the war in Tikrit, we would hear stories about how paranoid the Iraqis could be about U.S. intentions.
One full colonel engineer was meeting with the Saladin Province chief engineer. They were discussing how to make the Tikrit airport operational once again. It had been destroyed during the war. It was a civilian airport. The challenge was finding some source of money to finance a rehabilitation of the damaged airport. The U.S. Army colonel suggested a partnership between military and civilian authorities. The Germans, he pointed out, had done that for some 50 years at a base in Germany. They formed a civilian-military partnership with the U.S. and shared the airport. In Iraq, the military had some money, after all. He offered it only as an option.
“What???” exclaimed the Salahadin chief engineer. “You are going to be here for 50 years??” Whoa, whoa, the U.S. colonel tried to calm down the chief engineer and assure him we had no plans to be anywhere for 50 years. He was just searching for solutions.
That was what we faced. And, that Province Chief Engineer was Sunni. The Sunnis needed us to balance against the oppressive Shia ruling government. The heirs of a colonial country were very apprehensive that we were just another colonial power intending to “take” oil. That is the second mis-perception suggested by Donald Trump. We cannot simply “take” the oil. That is called imperialism. It would also violate several precepts of U.S. Army Civil Affairs doctrine. When I was in Iraq, I served as a Civil Affairs officer. CA folks are the men and women who administer territories held by US forces. In World War II. they would run a small town until the local town could elect its own leaders. In Iraq, unlike WWW II, we were very involved in the war. Essentially everything involved Civil Affairs. “Doctrine” is what we describe as our training manuals. Every Civil Affairs training manual specified clearly that our job was to manage things only until the locals could take over. That would, of course, mean that we let them keep their industries. If we “take” their oil, they would be dependent on us for generations. It would have violated every tenet of Civl Affairs doctrine. It would also have lead to many more of us being killed.
As one former general told one of my Civil Affairs colleagues, “I like you people in the U.S. Army. You come here and build schools and clinics. But, if you stay too long, I will kill you.” We were in a war. We did what we had to do to succeed while still keeping as many of us alive as possible. The former general said clearly that by building things and contributing money, we showed we were not imperialists. But, he warned, if that changed, he would join the insurgency. A ragtag group of amateurs is one thing. A former general is something else entirely. Our goal was to keep men like the general on the sidelines and perhaps, even occasionally, on our side.
So, yes, when it came time to negotiate some U.S. soldiers remaining in Iraq, the Iraq government pressed us to leave. And, yes, Pres. Obama did not press them to relent. But, really, it is hard to remain in a place where every Iraqi, Sunni and Shia, would prefer we leave. They liked us, but only if we did not stay too long.