There have been many articles claiming that President Obama and Hillary Clinton are responsible for the rise of ISIS. As a former US Army intelligence officer who was on the ground in Iraq for much of the period between 2003-2008, I have first hand knowledge of how ISIS came to be.
In the summer and fall of 2005, I was the chief intelligence trainer for the Iraqi 6th Army Division in Baghdad. Without exception, the officer corps of the 6th Division headquarters were Sunni Muslims from Al Anbar Province, with many of them coming from the violently contested city of Ramadi.
My days were mostly spent in the division’s operation center, trying teaching the Iraqi Army staff the techniques, tactics and procedures (TTPs) in conducting intelligence collection and analysis. After a few weeks of this, I really didn’t think we were making any progress or making any kind of impression on the Iraqis. All that changed one morning.
I was in the headquarters when I was approached by an Iraqi lieutenant colonel and captain. Very quietly, the colonel leaned into me and whispered “we want to talk to you.” Normally, this officer is very loud and gregarious. He would even routinely attempt to hold my hand as we walked around the building – a sign of friendship and respect in their culture and meant nothing romantic. I knew something was different.
I just nodded and followed them out the back door of the concrete building and onto the back patio. We found a spot on the flat railing shaded by the sparse palm trees where we could talk in private. The Iraqi captain then took over the conversation, as he was better with English than his superior officer.
“There are five insurgent groups in Ramadi” he started. “Four of them are Iraqi.” He was counting on his fingers as he spoke. “These four groups are ready to talk to the Americans.” He spoke slowly, tentatively as though he wanted to be sure both that I understood him and that no one else could hear him. “But, the Americans have to help us get rid of the last group” he vigorously shook his remaining finger with his opposite hand as if the finger represented something reprehensible.
“This group” he said, still holding his right pinky with his left hand, “is Taheed al Jihad.” I had heard of them. The Americans called them Al Qaida in Iraq. Made up mostly of foreign fighters, these people were not discriminating in who they killed. They would kill Iraqis just as quickly as they would attack the Americans. The captain confirmed this.
Al Qaida in Iraq was led by a murdering jihadist, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi who was, after we caught Saddam Hussein, always the #1 on our top ten most wanted posters we hung in the headquarters. Zarqawi was attempting to set up a caliphate in Iraq as early as 2004. He focused his reign of terror in the cities of Fallujah and Ramadi in Al Anbar from the beginning.
“Taheed al Jihad kill too many people, too many Iraqis.” The colonel was nodding in agreement by his side. “They’re bad. They’re bad for Iraq. They’re bad for America.” Then, after a short pause the captain added, “they’re bad for business.”
The Iraqis were ready to lay down their arms and get down to the business of rebuilding their province. Doing that meant the spigots of American cash would open up. The money wouldn’t flow until the fighting stopped. The fighting wouldn’t stop until they could get rid of Al Qaida. The Iraqis needed American firepower to do that. They were ready to cooperate. “Why are you telling me all this?” I asked. “Because we trust you” the colonel answered.
I was the first American the Sunni tribes in Al Anbar Province approached about cooperating with the American forces to oust Al Qaida. They were done with the killing. They were done with their families living in constant fear of Taheed al Jihad kicking in their front doors and being dragged out into the streets to be shot. They were done. They also knew that peace meant getting paid. The tribal sheiks stood to make millions $$ in reconstruction contracts. Billions of American dollars were flowing into Iraq every month and they were being left out. The Iraqis were done with that too.
Fast forward two years. In 2007 I was a battalion executive officer in 1st Brigade, 3rd Infantry Division in, of all places, Ramadi. I was also serving as the Camp Manager of Camp Ramadi, a sprawling Forward Operating Base (FOB) of Army soldiers, Marines and special operations forces that served as the hub of combat operations in Al Anbar.
The 1st Armored Division, who we replaced in January 2007, fought a very tough fight to secure Ramadi from the Al Qaida and the insurgents. But they did secure the city. My brigade, under the very smart and competent warrior, Colonel John Charlton, was able to keep the city relatively peaceful and push the fight out into the hinterlands of Al Anbar Province.
There were three factors that won the fight for Ramadi and Al Anbar Province for the Americans.
1. The Iraqis were finally ready to join with the Americans against a common enemy.
2. President Bush surged American forces, giving commanders the tools to take the fight to the enemey.
3. Field commanders, most notably Colonel Sean MacFarland, 1st Armored Division “Ready Brigade” commander and Colonel John Charlton, “Raider Brigade” commander 3rd Infantry Division whose tactics completely changed the entire complexion of the war in Iraq, often called the “Gettysburg of Iraq.”
When I first arrived for my third tour in January 2007, I rode a convoy of the 1st Armored Division from Al Taccadum, outside Fallujah where the airfield was, to Ramadi. Halfway the convoy pulled over and stopped. Being luggage in the backseat of a convoy from a different unit I had no idea what was going on. “Hey, sergeant, what’s up?” I asked the driver. He told me that the convoy ahead of us had been attacked. Two American soldiers were dead and their HMMV destroyed. By midsummer 2007, I could walk down the street and visit outdoor shops in Ramadi even without my helmet, something absolutely unthinkable even just a few weeks prior. There were still bad guys. We had to contend with IEDs, the occasional rocket attack on our convoys and we were fighting. It was nothing compared to before. As part of Bush’s “surge” I was in Ramadi until March, 2008. I can say from being on the ground that conditions in Ramadi and all of Al Anbar Province were better than at any time since the invasion in 2003 and were still improving.
When the Americans and their Iraqi allies came in, the Al Qaida insurgents left. From Al Anbar, the bad guys only had one place to go: westward into Syria. There was only one thing that kept Al Qaida in Syria: the American forces in Iraq. Period. In Syria, Al Qaida had found sanctuary and a place where they could refit, recruit and ready themselves for the next fight. They also adopted a new name: Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, ISIS.
President Obama was elected in 2008 with a vow to end the war in Iraq. Note, he didn’t vow to “win” the war in Iraq, just “end” the war in Iraq. In October 2011, standing before an audience of soldiers at Fort Bragg, NC, he promised “As promised the rest of our troops in Iraq will come home by the end of the year. After nearly nine years, America’s war in Iraq will be over.” He kept that promise.
The withdraw of US forces from Iraq left a vacuum just as ISIS was gathering momentum and strength in Syria. It didn’t take long for Taheed al Jihad, now ISIS, to take advantage of Iraq’s weakness. According to doctoral research by the former U.S. Army officer Craig Whiteside, “between 2009 and 2013, the Islamic State engaged in a ruthless campaign of assassination against Sunni tribal leaders and the remnants of the Awakening movement in Iraq’s Anbar province, killing 1,345 Awakening members. The bad guys my captain and lieutenant colonel wanted gone had returned and hell came with them.
By May 2015 Ramadi fell to ISIS. This was a particularly bitter pill to swallow for me personally, as I had worked so hard there and so many of my brothers bled to pacify that city. Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city, fell a year earlier. The Iraqi forces just melted away. Americans left huge stockpiles of weapons that were easily seized by ISIS fighters and turned against our Iraqi allies. ISIS fighters were now driving American M1 Abrams tanks and up-armored HMMVS.
From their enclave in Syria, ISIS’ power and influence grew. They began a systematic campaign of death and intimidation against the Iraqi civilians, particularly targeting any Christians in their path. At their height of power, ISIS controlled all of Al Anbar Province, western and northern Iraq from Mosul, Ramadi, Fallujah and were at the gates of Baghdad.
Although killed in a US air strike in June 2006, Al Zarqawi started the movement to establish a caliphate, and Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. He started the extreme use of violence based on a fundamentalist Islamic philosophy characterized by video-taped beheadings, civilians rounded up, shoved into ditches and shot in mass and indiscriminate murdering of all who opposed them or their imposition of strict sharia law. The Iraqis rejected his brand of terror and together with the Americans, bolstered by George Bush’s surge, defeated Al Qaida in Iraq and kicked them out of the country. They settled in Syria where they regained their strength and then took full advantage of the power vacuum in Iraq when President Obama withdrew all US forces out of the country.
The result was the deaths of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of innocent people as evil swept through the Middle East. I know. I was there.