Iraq to the future: How Trump's Syria reversal reflects the unlearned lessons of America's forever wars

Analysis

VIDEO: US and Iraqi forces drop 80,000 pounds of munitions on an ISIS-infested island

In May 2003, just two months after the U.S. military invaded Iraq and ousted dictator Saddam Hussein, then-Presidential Envoy Paul Bremer and his senior advisor Walter Slocombe drafted the Coalition Provisional Authority Order Number 2, a diplomatic document that effectively disbanded the Iraqi Army.

The text was purposefully benign, according to Slocombe, because "There was no intact Iraqi force to 'disband'" in the first place. For Slocombe and Bremer, the order was more a symbolic demolishment of Hussein's legacy — a demonstration, in Bremer's own words, "that neither Saddam nor his gang is coming back."

Now, more than 15 years later, Coalition Provisional Authority Order Number 2 (CPA Order 2, for short) is widely seen as one of the U.S.'s biggest blunders in Iraq, a hasty decision that led us right to the current "Forever War" predicament. And, with President Donald Trump's surprise withdrawal of U.S. forces from northern Syria on Monday, the lessons of the decree remain unheeded and unlearned.


The last remaining U.S. military forces drove across the Iraqi border per the Iraq and U.S. 2008 Security Agreement that required all U.S. service members to be out of the country by Dec. 31, 2011. (U.S. Air Force/Master Sgt. Cecilio Ricardo)

The U.S. on Monday announced the withdrawal of forces from northeast Syria in favor of a joint U.S.-Turkish "security mechanism" based on continued U.S. control over Syrian airspace. As my Task & Purpose colleague Jeff Schogol rightfully pointed out, the decision marks the second time that Trump has apparently taken his cues on U.S. military involvement in Syria from Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.

"Turkey, Europe, Syria, Iran, Iraq, Russia and the Kurds will now have to figure the situation out, and what they want to do with the captured ISIS fighters in their 'neighborhood,'" Trump tweeted on Monday before apparently warning Turkey against any operation against the Kurds: "If Turkey does anything that I, in my great and unmatched wisdom, consider to be off limits, I will totally destroy and obliterate the Economy of Turkey (I've done before!)."

Trump's surprise withdrawal echoes the mistakes made in Iraq. CPA Order 2 forced the U.S. and its coalition partners to reconstitute Iraq's national security forces from the ground up without the benefit of institutional knowledge, culture and discipline, resulting not just in an impotent and corrupt security infrastructure but a resurgence in sectarian tensions that eventually gave rise to — you guessed it — ISIS.

"Within one week the CPA had disenfranchised at least 450,000 people. Of those, 400,000 were Iraqi soldiers," Marine Col. Rob Weiler astutely observed after spending five years in post-invasion Iraq. Many of those veterans wound up joining ISIS: After all, Weiler noted, the former Iraqi army "felt humiliated, deceived, and in a powerless situation to set a course for their future and care for their families. Unemployed and infuriated, they turned to other outlets to demonstrate their displeasure."

What's to say that won't happen again in Syria, where America's Kurdish allies will now find themselves at the mercy of Erdoğan, a man who labeled "the world's largest stateless nation" as a terrorist insurgency that threatens his iron fist? It's not unreasonable to think many of those abandoned Kurds — screwed for the eighth time by their ostensible allies in Washington — will prove fertile ground for ISIS recruitment just as they have in the past.

The Kurds are also responsible for keeping ISIS contained in a relatively small regional stronghold.

But Trump's support for a Turkish military sweep of the area means that one of the principal gatekeepers against ISIS just grew a lot more vulnerable. And this comes at the worst possible time: According to Pentagon data released in late 2018, ISIS had an estimated 30,000 fighters spread across Iraq and Syria — just as many as at the height of its physical caliphate. Without Kurdish forces holding the line, it's unclear how quickly ISIS fighters may attempt to reassert themselves in its former territorial footholds.

Ever since the destruction of its formal caliphate, ISIS has been biding it time for a bloody comeback. Afghanistan, once again a playground for the Taliban, is one such place; Iraq, still suffering the scars of CPA Order 2, is another. Trump's sudden decision on the U.S. troop presence in Syria threatens to create yet another window for ISIS to survive and thrive — and, nearly two decades after the U.S. invaded Afghanistan, it offers a dismal reminder that American leaders have failed to internalize the nation-building lessons of the last two decades.

A UH-60 Black Hawk departs from The Rock while conducting Medevac 101 training with members of the 386th Expeditionary Medical Group, Feb. 16, 2019. (U.S. Air Force Photo/Tech. Sgt. Robert Cloys)

A Minnesota Army National Guard UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter with three Guardsmen aboard crashed south of St. Cloud on Thursday, said National Guard spokeswoman Army Master Sgt. Blair Heusdens.

At this time, the National Guard is not releasing any information about the status of the three people aboard the helicopter, Heusdens told Task & Purpose on Thursday.

Read More Show Less

The Pentagon's latest attempt to twist itself in knots to deny that it is considering sending up to 14,000 troops to the Middle East has a big caveat.

Pentagon spokeswoman Alyssa Farah said there are no plans to send that many troops to the region "at this time."

Farah's statement does not rule out the possibility that the Defense Department could initially announce a smaller deployment to the region and subsequently announce that more troops are headed downrange.

Read More Show Less

The Navy could send a second aircraft carrier to the Middle East if President Donald Trump orders a surge of forces to the region, Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Mike Gilday said on Thursday.

Gordon Lubold and Nancy Youssef of the Wall Street Journal first reported the United States is considering sending up to 14,000 troops to the Middle East to deter Iran from attacking U.S. forces and regional allies. The surge forces could include several ships.

Read More Show Less

I didn't think a movie about World War I would, or even could, remind me of Afghanistan.

Somehow 1917 did, and that's probably the highest praise I can give Sam Mendes' newest war drama: It took a century-old conflict and made it relatable.

Read More Show Less

An internal investigation spurred by a nude photo scandal shows just how deep sexism runs in the Marine Corps

"I will still have to work harder to get the perception away from peers and seniors that women can't do the job."

news
(U.S. Marine Corps photo)

Some years ago, a 20-year-old female Marine, a military police officer, was working at a guard shack screening service members and civilians before they entered the base. As a lance corporal, she was new to the job and the duty station, her first in the Marine Corps.

At some point during her shift, a male sergeant on duty drove up. Get in the car, he said, the platoon sergeant needs to see you. She opened the door and got in, believing she was headed to see the enlisted supervisor of her platoon.

Instead, the sergeant drove her to a dark, wooded area on base. It was deserted, no other Marines were around. "Hey, I want a blowjob," the sergeant told her.

"What am I supposed, what do you do as a lance corporal?" she would later recall. "I'm 20 years old ... I'm new at this. You're the only leadership I've ever known, and this is what happens."

She looked at him, then got out of the car and walked away. The sergeant drove up next to her and tried to play it off as a prank. "I'm just fucking with you," he said. "It's not a big deal."

It was one story among hundreds of others shared by Marines for a study initiated in July 2017 by the Marine Corps Center for Advanced Operational Culture Learning (CAOCL). Finalized in March 2018, the center's report was quietly published to its website in September 2019 with little fanfare.

The culture of the Marine Corps is ripe for analysis. A 2015 Rand Corporation study found that women felt far more isolated among men in the Corps, while the Pentagon's Office of People Analytics noted in 2018 that female Marines rated hostility toward them as "significantly higher" than their male counterparts.

But the center's report, Marines' Perspectives on Various Aspects of Marine Corps Organizational Culture, offers a proverbial wakeup call to leaders, particularly when paired alongside previous studies, since it was commissioned by the Marine Corps itself in the wake of a nude photo sharing scandal that rocked the service in 2017.

The scandal, researchers found, was merely a symptom of a much larger problem.

Read More Show Less