Congress’s Iraq Vets Helplessly Watch Their Gains Lost

“What was the point of all that?” Perry asks of U.S. action as Mosul and Tikrit fall to extremists.

Iraqi families fleeing violence in the northern Nineveh province gather at a Kurdish checkpoint in Aski kalak, 40 kms West of Arbil, in the autonomous Kurdistan region, on June 11, 2014. Since the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant began their spectacular assault in Mosul late on June 9, militants have captured a large swathe of northern and north-central Iraq, prompting as many as half a million people to flee their homes. 
National Journal
Clara Ritger
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Clara Ritger
June 11, 2014, 5:28 p.m.

Amer­ic­ans are tired of war. For the 17 mem­bers of Con­gress who served in Ir­aq, that means watch­ing help­lessly as the cit­ies they fought for fall once more to ex­trem­ists.

Mil­it­ants be­lieved to be as­so­ci­ated with al-Qaida over­took Mo­sul, the second-largest city in Ir­aq, on Tues­day. The group then seized Tikrit, ho­met­own of former Pres­id­ent Sad­dam Hus­sein, on Wed­nes­day.

Three Re­pub­lic­an con­gress­men who served in Ir­aq — Scott Perry of Pennsylvania, Doug Collins of Geor­gia, and Brad Wen­strup of Ohio — said it feels like the pro­gress they made has been thrown away.

“Go­ing out across the desert I re­mem­ber the feel­ings that you have, won­der­ing if you’re go­ing to make it out alive,” Perry said. “Right now I won­der what that was all about. What was the point of all of that?”

A se­cur­ity agree­ment was what Perry, Collins, and Wen­strup wanted to see come out of the war, one that would al­low U.S. troops to re­main in­volved in the re­gion when the en­emy — thought to be the Is­lam­ic State in Ir­aq and Syr­ia — re­turned.

“We have an en­emy today that senses weak­ness, knows how to find it, and then goes after it,” Wen­strup said. “I think Ir­aq maybe thought they could [de­fend them­selves]. This was an op­por­tun­ity for us to have an­oth­er ally in the re­gion. I came home from Ir­aq feel­ing that we lib­er­ated 25 mil­lion people.”

But that free­dom is in jeop­ardy, Wen­strup said, if Ir­aqi cit­izens can­not or will not fight back.

And none of the con­gress­men thought there was much the United States could do.

“I think at this point the ad­min­is­tra­tion made a choice to cut and run,” Collins said. “When Fal­lu­jah fell again, we knew this for­eign policy had con­sequences. Aside from an in­ter­ven­tion, which I don’t think is on any­body’s mind, Ir­aq is go­ing to have de­fend for it­self. At this point we’ll see if the Ir­aqi se­cur­ity forces are cap­able.”

Fal­lu­jah fell to mil­it­ants in Janu­ary. The city was taken by U.S. forces in late 2004 at the cost of more than 100 Amer­ic­an sol­diers’ lives, the blood­i­est battle of the Ir­aq War.

The Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion ac­know­ledges the set­backs in Ir­aq.

“On the bat­tle­field, it can­not be con­sidered a suc­cess,” said Robert Beec­roft, former U.S. am­bas­sad­or to Ir­aq, at a Sen­ate com­mit­tee hear­ing Wed­nes­day. “It’s a struggle. We’re do­ing what we can to sup­port them with equip­ment, as­sist­ance, train­ing, and shar­ing any in­tel­li­gence.”

Re­ports from Mo­sul said the Ir­aqis changed out of their mil­it­ary uni­forms, aban­doned their weapons, and fled their homes to es­cape the vi­ol­ence.

“It seems to me that the Ir­aqis laid down a lot of the arms that we gave to them,” Wen­strup said. “So that doesn’t seem to be the solu­tion.”

At the Sen­ate hear­ing, the pres­id­ent’s nom­in­ee to serve as the next am­bas­sad­or to Ir­aq, Stu­art Jones, ex­pressed con­fid­ence that Ir­aq could de­fend it­self, and said groups are com­ing to­geth­er to re­spond to the at­tacks.

“We will con­tin­ue to work with our in­ter­na­tion­al part­ners to try to meet the needs of those who have been dis­placed, and we will try to work with the se­cur­ity forces in their fight against [IS­IS],” Jones said.

And that may be all the U.S. can do, save from chan­ging course on the pres­id­ent’s for­eign policy and send­ing troops back in­to the re­gion.

The vet­er­ans in Con­gress also har­bor doubts about what will hap­pen in Afgh­anistan, where U.S. troops are set to leave by 2016. But Amer­ica isn’t ral­ly­ing to step back in­to the war — and that means liv­ing with the con­sequences of let­ting Ir­aq and Afgh­anistan de­fend them­selves.

“I don’t think we’re power­less,” Perry said. “I think we can help form pub­lic opin­ion, which will help to guide [Obama] to some ex­tent. But I don’t think there’s any ap­pet­ite from the Amer­ic­an people to go back and do our work twice.”

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