Seth Moulton, a Democrat, represents Massachusetts’s 6th congressional district in the House.
Losing a friend in war is always hard. Losing a friend to a battle we already fought and won is worse.
That’s how my close friend Lt. Col. Ehab Hashem Moshen was killed recently by the Islamic State near Fallujah — refighting a battle in Iraq that the Marine Corps fought a decade ago. The Marines won that fight. The problem is that the Obama administration didn’t follow through on a political plan to maintain the peace.
In April, I visited some of the almost 5,000 troops that President Obama has put back in Iraq, and I witnessed a recurring theme: We have a military plan to defeat the Islamic State — and, as initial gains in Fallujah this week demonstrate, it’s going well in many respects — but we have yet to articulate a political plan to ensure Iraq’s long-term stability.
Sometimes it’s impossible to tell whether it’s 2007 or 2016. The battle plans I hear from our commanders in Iraq today are the same ones I heard at the beginning of the surge, down to the same cities and tribal alliances. My question is: How will this time be different? The silence is deafening.
Carl von Clausewitz taught us nearly 200 years ago that “War is a mere continuation of politics by other means.” We have to have a political endgame, or the sacrifices our troops continue to make will be in vain. It’s not the military’s job to develop that political plan — that’s where the administration comes in — but it’s painfully clear there isn’t one.
Without a long-term political strategy, we can expect to send young Americans back to Iraq every time Iraqi politics fall apart, a new terrorist group sweeps in and we find ourselves required to clean up the mess.
Let’s not forget that, fundamentally, the crisis in Iraq today is political. When the Islamic State overran much of the country, it didn’t just defeat the Iraqi army; the soldiers of the Iraqi army put their weapons down and went home because they had lost faith in then-Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s sectarian government. Only if we can help bring lasting change to Iraqi politics will Iraq be able to defend itself without our help.
Unfortunately, the president’s response to the Islamic State in Iraq has missed the mark: You don’t fix Iraqi politics by training Iraqi troops. We need a comprehensive military and political plan. The good news is that we now have an Iraqi prime minister who is aligned with our interests and has the support of the Iraqi people to reform their government. He faces plenty of entrenched political opposition, however, and that’s where the United States can help.
First, we can provide resources directly to Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi to support his agenda of reform. Second, we can help the disenfranchised Sunnis have a stronger voice in their government by encouraging them to unite politically, just as we did during the surge. Third, we must counter the malign interests of Iranian agents working to inflame sectarianism among Shiite leaders and in the Iraqi media. And fourth, we can broker a reasonable agreement between the Abadi government and our closest allies, the Kurds. All this will take a stronger diplomatic presence. We built the largest U.S. Embassy in the world in Iraq, knowing that Iraqis would need continued political mentorship, but then we left it half-empty. It’s time we fixed that.
As a four-tour Marine veteran of Iraq myself, I share the president’s deeply held wish that our continued involvement were not necessary. It would be great if we could simply hand the ball to the Iraqis and wish them well. But hope is not a strategy, and the past five years have proved that that approach doesn’t work.
Some will say that meddling in foreign politics often makes things worse, and I’ll be the first to say that it’s hard to do well. But we made tremendous political progress in Iraq during the surge. Under the strong leadership of then-Ambassador Ryan Crocker, we kept a lid on sectarianism, curtailed Iranian influence and led reconciliation among many disgruntled tribesmen. Yes, the leverage of 100,000 U.S. troops helped, but Crocker’s close coordination with his military counterpart, Gen. David Petraeus, was what mattered most; there are far more elements of U.S. power and influence we can bring to the table than boots on the ground.
More important, the alternative to robust political mentoring in Iraq is sending young Americans back again and again. Fixing Iraqi politics is difficult, but I’d much prefer having a heavy, long-term diplomatic presence than losing more lives refighting battles we already won.
My friend Ehab was a brave Iraqi soldier, one of the best officers in his generation. He died an Iraqi hero, and given how many times he put his life on the line for my team and me, I believe he’s an American hero as well. He’s a great example of our many Muslim allies who fight Islamic terrorists every day. We need more brave men like Ehab to win this long war. We must work harder to ensure his death won’t have been in vain.