When President Obama proclaimed in the fall of 2012 during the presidential campaign that Al Qaeda was “on the run,” who knew he meant that Usama bin Laden’s acolytes were just hustling off to other places, including back to their old stomping grounds in Iraq.
In fact, news reports note that not only is Al Qaeda resurgent in Iraq two years after U.S. forces withdrew, but that it has actually recently taken–and held—ground in cities like Fallujah and Ramadi, two places fabled for American heroism during the war.
You can almost picture a gleeful Al Qaeda in Iraq breathily saying: “We’re baaaaaack…”
Unfortunately, this state of affairs isn’t surprising since the Obama administration left Iraq without leaving a residual force in place for, at a minimum, to advise and train the Iraqis in counter-terrorism operations.
There’s no question that the ascendance of Al Qaeda in Iraq isn’t likely what Obama meant when he promised to bring the war there “to a responsible end” for the United States.
Indeed, in a classic “I told you so" moment, some members of Congress like Sen John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) have accused Team Obama of botching the wind down of U.S. involvement in the war.
In a January 4 statement, McCain and Graham wrote that “Reports that Al Qaeda fighters have taken over Fallujah and are gaining ground in other parts of Iraq are as tragic as they were predictable.”
They also note that while the Iraqis are at fault as well for the sorry security situation that took nearly 8,000 lives in 2013 alone,the administration rejected “sound [U.S.] military advice and squandered the opportunity to conclude a security agreement with Iraq” that might have “consolidated our gains” during the war.
The senators make a solid point and the troubling turn of events led Secretary of State John Kerry, while in the Middle East, to say on Sunday that Washington was willing to help Baghdad, but the return of U.S. troops was a non-starter, according to news accounts.
It seems that even when Al Qaeda’s interests appear local or regional, we’re rarely excluded as a main enemy despite our distance from the issues at hand. Indeed, Bin Laden referred to us as the “far enemy” and considered us a continuing priority for attacks.
This means that should all or part of Iraq -- or Syria or Yemen or Somalia or Libya or Afghanistan or Pakistan -- fall to Al Qaeda affiliates, we can bet that among others we’ll be smack (dead) in the middle of their cross hairs, if not immediately, then eventually.
Kerry also noted that Al Qaeda in Iraq -- now known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) -- is the most “dangerous” actor in the region, which is high “praise” considering other perilous players like Iran and Hezbollah.
Once thought to have been nearly snuffed out as a result of the U.S. troop “surge,” Al Qaeda’s comeback is about more than Iraq’s future which is worrisome enough due its strategic location and energy supplies -- not to mention our sacrifices there.
ISIS is having a profound effect next door in Syria, where the almost three year long civil war (that has taken as many as130,000 lives) rages on. ISIS finds fresh recruits, battle-hardened foot soldiers and much-needed safe haven in western Iraq along Syria’s border.
Of course, the Syrian civil war isn’t just Syria’s problem; it’s spilling over Syria’s borders bringing violence, bad actors and refugees into neighboring Lebanon, Turkey and Jordan.
The bottom line is that the Al Qaeda virus is virulent and spreading -- and we’re far from immune to its devastating effects. If we haven’t learned this painful lesson yet, it’s high time we do so.
- Peter Brookes is Senior Fellow, National Security Affairs at the Heritage Foundation and a former deputy assistant secretary of defense for Asian and Pacific affairs.