The US raid that killed Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi over the weekend was a victory in the War on Terror, but winning the battle should not be confused with winning the war. Both ISIS and al Qaeda are still active threats and the victory should not be taken as an opportunity to leave the Middle East on a high note.
One person who is concerned that the US will declare victory and leave in the aftermath of the raid is Iraqi President Barham Salih. Salih, a pro-American leader, spoke with Axios last week, six days prior to the al-Bagdadi raid, and was already sounding the alarm.
"The staying power of the United States is being questioned in a very, very serious way," Salih said. "And allies of the United States are worried about the dependability of the United States."
“I'm worried about ethnic cleansing,” President Salih, who is an Iraqi Kurd, said, “And this has been the history, tragic history of the Kurdish people and this [is] dangerous and tragic. The humanitarian cost is just awful.”
Although President Salih was not aware of al-Bagdadi’s impending departure from life, he was well aware of President Trump’s abandonment of the Kurds and equivocations on whether to keep American soldiers in Syria at all. The Iraqis must be quite plausibly wondering if the American commitment to their country will be discarded as quickly as our commitment to the Kurds.
They have good reason to wonder since America has already abandoned Iraq once. In 2011, the Obama Administration failed to negotiate a Status of Forces Agreement to maintain a small security force there. Three years later, the US had to send troops back to help the Iraqis beat back ISIS. It’s entirely possible that President Trump may be about to make a similar mistake.
Several reports have indicated that the timing of the al-Bagdadi raid was influenced by President Trump’s decision to leave northern Syria. Rukmini Callimachi, a Middle East correspondent for the New York Times, reported that al-Bagdadi’s location was determined “back in the summer” but the raid was deemed too risky because it was in Syrian and Russian airspace. With the US pullout looming, commanders decided to rush the raid. Their gamble paid off.
There is also the irony that the raid would not have been possible, or at least would have been much more difficult, if President Trump’s policies had been seen through to fruition. Axios also reported that the raid was based at least partially on intelligence received from Syrian Kurds and depended on having American forces in the region to carry out the attack. Jimmy Carter’s Desert One debacle from 1980 is an example of how long-range missions are far more complex and risky than raids that can be staged locally.
President Salih stressed that, despite the concerns of some Americans about “endless wars,” the US should not leave while ISIS and al-Qaeda are still threats, saying, “The military defeat of ISIS is an important victory, but not incomplete [sic] and precarious too as well. It can easily unravel. And this is what I'm worried about.”
“Five years of blood, treasure, effort — a lot of human misery went into defeating ISIS,” Salih added. “This victory was [not] easy, and for anyone to become complacent about it is terrible, reckless, dangerous, tragic.”
The Iraqi president also cautioned Americans about Iraq’s role in a possible war with Iran. “The United States is an important ally, partner. … We want this to continue and we definitely don't want our territory to be used,” he said. “We should try and stop it because Iraq cannot sustain it, cannot survive it.”
Salih’s misgivings about the US using bases in Iraq to attack Iran goes back to the question of whether America would stand by its ally. Iraq is undoubtedly concerned that the US would launch its limited number of airstrikes and then go home, leaving Iraq to deal with the fallout from Iran. Americans may not remember, but Salih definitely does, that Iran and Iraq fought a decade-long war in the 1980s. The Iraqi president does not want to repeat that experience.
President Trump’s decision to authorize the raid to kill al-Bagdadi was a good one and it led to a great triumph. The big question is what course Mr. Trump will take next. Will he follow President Obama’s example and bring the troops home prematurely or will he stick it out until they win?
Originally published on The Resurgent