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
“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
“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
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 several months ago 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,
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?