The Middle East’s Unlikely Alliances

Here's a breakdown of who is siding with whom as the success of the militant group Islamic State in Iraq and Syria has led to new ties between former foes in the region


Iraq Asks the U.S. to Launch Air Strikes Against Sunni Militants

Iraqi Shiite tribesmen brandish their weapons as they gather to show their willingness to join Iraqi security forces in the fight against Jihadist militants who have taken over several northern Iraqi cities, on June 17 2014, in the southern Shiite Muslim shrine city of Najaf.
Iraqi Shiite tribesmen brandish their weapons as they gather to show their willingness to join Iraqi security forces in the fight against Jihadist militants who have taken over several northern Iraqi cities, on June 17 2014, in the southern Shiite Muslim shrine city of Najaf. Haidar Hamdani—AFP/Getty Images

Baghdad has officially asked the U.S. to consider deploying air support to the country's languishing ground troops

Iraq’s embattled government is clamoring for U.S. air strikes against Sunni militias that continue to capture large swaths of territory north of the capital, Baghdad, including portions of the country’s largest oil refinery.

During an official visit to Saudi Arabia this week, Iraq’s Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari confirmed the U.S. has been officially asked to supply air support to help halt a massive rebel offensive that is being led by the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS).

“Iraq has officially asked Washington to help … and to conduct air strikes against terrorist groups,” Zebari told reporters, according to the AFP.

“A military approach will not be enough. We acknowledge the need for drastic political solutions.”

In Washington, U.S. President Barack Obama met with his National Security Council earlier this week before sitting down with top legislators in the Oval Office on Wednesday.

“The President directed his national security team to develop a range of options, and that work is ongoing,” White House spokesman Jay Carney told a pool of reporters Tuesday.

“But there is no military solution that will solve Iraq’s problems, which is why we’ve been urgently pressing Iraq’s leaders across the political spectrum to govern in a non-sectarian manner.”

A car bomb exploded inside a parking lot in the Iraqi capital’s southeastern Shi‘ite neighborhood of New Baghdad on Thursday, killing three and leaving seven people injured, reports the AP.

On Wednesday, reports circulated that ISIS fighters had seized significant swaths of Iraq’s largest oil refinery in Baiji, despite coming up against stiff resistance from government forces comprising elite Iraqi commandos who had the support of helicopter gunships.

Iraqi officials have continued to deny that the battle for the facility has been lost to ISIS.

Brigadier General Arras Abdul Qadir, who is commanding the battle against the insurgent forces at the refinery, reportedly told the New York Times by phone that his men were still inside the facility and fighting.

However, when asked how long his troops could hold out against the enemy, Qadir replied, “We will see.”

TIME Veterans

Veterans Offer Each Other Help as Iraq Falls Apart

A US marine from the 3/5 Lima company po
A U.S. Marine in Fallujah in November 2004. PATRICK BAZ / AFP / Getty Images

One group warns of “frustration” that could lead to suicide

More than 1.5 million Americans served in Iraq between 2003 and 2011. More than a few of them are upset with what’s happened to that country, where they fought and their friends died, over the past week.

That’s why the Wounded Warrior Project sent an email Tuesday to its 50,000 members acknowledging their sacrifices and offering mental-health services if they find the latest happenings from Iraq depressing.

“Your feelings are justified,” Ryan Kules, 
the project’s national alumni director and a double amputee, said. “If you feel frustration watching the news, remember that we did our duty and served admirably, coming home with the visible and invisible scars of that service.”

The reaction of those who fought, and whose friends died, in Iraq has been somber. There wasn’t so much bitter anger as a palpable sadness. Those who thought the invasion was a mistake consoled themselves by blaming President George W. Bush; others blamed President Obama for not fighting harder to keep some U.S. forces in the country after 2011 to try to ensure the lives of the 4,486 Americans who died there didn’t end in vain.

“So many of my friends died in a war that didn’t need to be fought, but that did ultimately provide a reasonable chance for a democratic Iraq in the center of the Middle East,” retired Army officer John Nagl says. “It now appears that all those lives have been squandered because of an unwillingness to pay an insurance premium of a few thousand advisers and some airpower.”

Such grim tidings can lead to despair, which is why Kules of the Wounded Warrior Project reached out. He urged troubled vets to seek help “if you are dealing with PTSD triggers because of current media coverage,” and gave a phone number—1-800-273-8255—for any veterans “struggling with thoughts of suicide.”

Michelle Roberts, the communications chief at the project, says the group reaches out when an event—like last year’s Boston Marathon bombing—might trigger adverse reactions among those who served. “We’re very aware of the conversations our alumni are having with each other, and our staff, about the recent developments and how they affect them,” she says. “We just felt it was a really appropriate time to communicate with them.”

Interviews with veterans echo that view. “I’m just heartbroken, tired and nearing mute,” says Alex Lemons, an Iraq vet and former Marine sergeant. “I never saw a concrete objective and, in consequence, a willingness to win on our part.”

Lemons pulled three tours in Iraq, and says the goal shifted with each:

I was told this at the beginning: `And our mission is to clear, to disarm Iraq of weapons of mass destruction, to end Saddam Hussein’s support for terrorism, and to free the Iraqi people.’ WMD? Nothing. Fiction. Al Qaeda and indigenous terrorism? Terrorists entered the country after we invaded and then recruited heavily amongst those Iraqis we alienated with de-Baathification and firings throughout the army. Even during the surge, we could not crush every insurgent group. Regime change? We mishandled the trial and subsequent execution of President Hussein. In some ways, the Maliki government is another Baath party in Shiite garb.

“All Americans who fought there want Iraq to succeed so that we can have personal closure and know our sacrifices were worth it even as the rest of America, like the Vietnam experience, wants to forget,” Lemons says. “But Iraq will never give us that.”

Even Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, feels the sting. “Many of you have served in Iraq or know friends and family who made great sacrifices there,” he said in a message sent to troops Thursday. “Like many of you, I was disappointed at how quickly the situation in Iraq deteriorated as well as the rapid collapse of many Iraqi units.”

“It was somewhat expected, yet still disappointing, says Rob Kumpf, who served in Iraq as an Army non-commissioned officer. “Fighting an asymmetric war with one hand tied behind your back, with poor planning and unengaged leadership, led to the current situation Iraq’s security forces face. We screwed up the end game when we withdrew, and will soon do the same in Afghanistan.”

But other veterans have shrugged off what is happening. “Iraq’s political situation is not the concern of individual veterans of the war,” says William Treseder, who deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan as a Marine sergeant. “Combat veterans should value their service based on what they did, not on what happened after the fact or in some larger international context.”

Those who haven’t fought don’t know how combat can change one’s perspective. “Love, loyalty, sweat, and blood are the currency of service—its beating heart. Politics is a dry husk that tries to cover and limit that vitality,” Treseder says. “I wish Iraq and Afghanistan the best as countries, but I do not give them the power to determine how I feel about my service to the United States of America. Nor do I think it’s wise for any other combat veteran to do so.”

But some plainly do. “Your examples of valor and strength educate and inspire those around us,” Kules of the Wounded Warrior Project told them in his email. “Remember, you are not alone. Many of your fellow warriors make themselves available to help others…and WWP remains by your side to provide whatever support and assistance you need.


A City Is in Limbo as Iraq Spirals Out of Control

Personnel from the Kurdish security forces detain a man suspected of being a militant belonging to the al Qaeda-linked Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) in the outskirts of Kirkuk June 16.
Personnel from the Kurdish security forces detain a man suspected of being a militant belonging to the al Qaeda-linked Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) in the outskirts of Kirkuk June 16. Ako Rasheed—Reuters

Kirkuk's future is uncertain

In a large ornate room here last week, 20 generals were meeting to decide what would come next for their Kurdish fighters. After Iraqi soldiers deserted their posts last week in fear of approaching fighters from the militants group Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), the Kurdish forces had waltzed into the city unopposed. Kirkuk is one of the country’s most contested cities, claimed by Arabs, Turkmen and Kurds. But in matter of hours, the Kurds had taken militarily what they failed to secure politically for decades—picking up millions of dollars worth of weapons left by fleeing Iraqi troops in the process.

“I don’t know why they left. There wasn’t even any fighting. They didn’t fire a shot at the terrorists,” said General Sharko Fateh, first brigade commander for the Kurdish fighters in Kirkuk. “A brigade of 17,000 soldiers just deserted.”

The fate of this contested oil-rich city should have been determined by a referendum years ago—with residents deciding if the region would stay in Iraq or join the Kurdish semi-autonomous territory. That proposed referendum was never held. Today it’s being debated against the backdrop of exploding violence in the country, as Sunni militants capture towns with an eye on Baghdad and Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s Shi-ite government struggling to regain control. The militants pressed on with an assault on an oil refinery that started Tuesday and continued Wednesday.

“Now the Kurds hold the territory [in Kirkuk] and don’t need anyone’s permission to stay there,” said Gareth Stansfield, a professor of Middle East Politics at the University of Exeter. “If Iraq stays together, there are clearly questions about the ability of Baghdad as a central point to enforces its power over any part Iraq, whether it’s over the Kurds or Mosul or Basra or anywhere.”

In the meeting room in Kirkuk on Saturday, General Fateh said he didn’t know if the Kurdish fighters would stay in the city—or give back the weapons they found. While many here were pleased to see them on guard in Kirkuk, some worried the city will simply be claimed by Kurdish fighters—rather than the fate of the region being settled democratically.

“Now the Peshmerga are protecting the city,” Mohammed Ali, 54, an Arab shopkeeper in Kirkuk, said in using a term for Kurdish fighters. He said his family has been here for centuries. “But Kirkuk belongs to Baghdad,” he said. “Iraq is one country.”

That sentiment will be increasingly tested over the coming days and weeks, not only here in contested Kirkuk, but across Iraq, where calls to arms have an increasingly sectarian pitch.

The political alliance of Kirkuk’s Turkmen community is split. Some want Turkmen autonomy in Kirkuk, others are happy to look toward Baghdad or Kurdish Erbil, but there are fears of Kurdish dominance.

“The Kurds want to make Turkmen people afraid,” said Ali Mahdi, a council member of the Iraqi Turkmen Front. “To make them go from Kirkuk. They want to control all the government offices. And then after one year or two years they’ll say Kirkuk belongs to Kurdistan. We will not allow Kirkuk to belong to Kurdistan.”

But it’s seems unlikely now the Kurdish forces will retreat even if Iraqi brigades wish to return.

“They are convinced that they made that mistake and they should have stayed in 2003,” Stansfield said. The Kurds took Kirkuk in 2003, when U.S. forces entered Iraq, but left quickly under pressure from their American allies.

“One day after the liberation of Baghdad. We liberated Kirkuk with our Peshmerga forces,” said Ahmed Askari, a member of the Kirkuk Provincial Council. Askari himself returned with his family to Kirkuk that year. They were among thousands of Kurds pushed from Kirkuk under Saddam Hussein’s policy of Arabization the early 1980s, effectively resettling Arabs from the south of Iraq to Kirkuk to change demographics. “[Hussein’s] Bath security forces came to my house, put my family on a truck and sent them out,” Askari said. For decades they lived in Sulaymaniyah, in the eastern part of Iraqi Kurdistan.

As thousands of Kurds returned with their children, other groups in Kirkuk cried foul, saying it was now the Kurds trying to alter the demographics, bringing in people who were not born in the area.

“When the terror groups attacked this area, the Kurdish people defended themselves,” said Askari of the ISIS militants’ arrival last week. “Maybe now some people say we have liberated Kirkuk [again]. Some will say it’s our chance to take our rights to it.”

It’s not just historic ties to a homeland that makes this province so disputed, but the lucrative oil that sits under the surface. Kirkuk is just part of the Kurdish national project and the potential oil profits could be used to push the agenda forward. Since the fall of Hussein, the Kurdistan Regional Government has gained increasing autonomy and control of resources, and under the current President Masoud Barzani the area has found relative prosperity and security.

Even before this week’s events, Barzani was already upping the rhetoric of the autonomy for the Kurds. And as much of Iraq splitters along these sectarian divides, here in the Kurdish north, generals are thinking strategically and political forces are gaining territory and asserting autonomy.

“This is their moment to re-write the map of the Middle East and review the situation they’ve been in for the last 200 years. … Now the Kurds have their 50-year oil and gas treaty with Turkey in place, they have control of Kirkuk,” Stansfield said. “It’s still going to be difficult to move toward full independence, but these pieces are quickly falling in to place, and ISIS has actually brought this.”


Why Iraq’s Awakening Councils Can’t Save the Country From al-Qaeda This Time

A member of the U.S.-backed Neighborhood Patrol Awakening Council stands guard in the Sunni Adhamiya district north of Baghdad in 2008.
A member of the U.S.-backed Neighborhood Patrol Awakening Council stands guard in the Sunni Adhamiya district north of Baghdad in 2008. Wathiq Khuzaie—Getty Images

Iraq's Sunni tribes helped defeat al-Qaeda in 2008. This time around they are likely to stay on the sidelines

When al-Qaeda militants attacked Iraq’s al-Askari Mosque, one of the holiest sites in Shi‘ite Islam, in 2006, it unleashed a savage, sectarian war that saw tens of thousands of Iraqis dead and hundreds of thousands injured and traumatized. Shi‘ite militias responded by torturing and executing Sunnis, and Sunni groups aligned with al-Qaeda embarked on a series of brutal suicide attacks across the country. Al-Qaeda ruled Iraq’s so-called Sunni Triangle, spanning the distance between the Syrian border to the northwest, down the Tigris and nearly to Baghdad. It took more than 130,000 U.S. troops, hundreds of thousands of Iraqi security forces, and the recruitment of Sunni tribes into a unified movement backed by American funding to calm the country and tame al-Qaeda.

Well, al-Qaeda is back, this time in the far more virulent incarnation of the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS), an offshoot so vicious that it has been denounced by al-Qaeda’s central leadership in Pakistan. But this time around ISIS’s rampage through Iraq is supported by some of the very same Sunni tribes that were used to defeat al-Qaeda in 2008. With Sunnis feeling alienated and resentful at what they see as the central government’s pro-Shi‘ite policies, it is unlikely that Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, also a Shi‘ite, will have any of the same tools left at his disposal to quash a movement that threatens to tear the country apart.

On Monday night, 44 Sunni prisoners being held in the mixed Shi‘ite-Sunni town of Baquba were reportedly executed by their Shi‘ite jailers with gunshots to the head, a crime reminiscent of the worst days of the 2006 sectarian bloodletting. Even as al-Maliki tried to soothe tensions in a televised address to the nation, saying on Wednesday that his government was “regaining the initiative and striking back,” his Shi‘ite-dominated army is unlikely to take back Mosul and other Sunni towns without help.

Even before the sectarian bloodletting of 2006, U.S. military forces had quietly begun supplying and training local Sunni tribal militias in Anbar province to take on al-Qaeda in Iraq. That program eventually grew into a countrywide Sunni Awakening Movement largely credited with reducing al-Qaeda influence on a local level and bringing the sectarian war to an end. The groups were essentially paid by the U.S. government to patrol neighborhoods, fight insurgents and not to fight U.S. or Iraqi forces. The Iraqi government, then led by al-Maliki, took on responsibility for the movement in 2008, and promised to pay the roughly 50,000 members. Later al-Maliki’s government tried to disband what it feared might become a sectarian militia by promising to absorb about a quarter of the members into the army, and providing vocational training and employment to others. The promises were rarely fulfilled, engendering even more resentment among the tribes. “The councils kicked al-Qaeda out in 2008, but Maliki never rewarded those people,” says Erbil-based analyst Hoshang Waziri. “He kept their salaries and he marginalized the tribes. The Sunni have the sense that they have been cheated by Maliki. They feel they have been discriminated against.”

Even if al-Maliki wanted to reconstitute the movement, he would have a hard time convincing Sunnis that he would follow through this time, says Fakri Karim, editor in chief of Iraq’s Al Mada newspaper. “No one trusts Maliki and his promises after he lost his credibility and revealed he won’t keep all the promises he made,” Fakri says in an email to TIME.

Stability in Iraq will ultimately depend on those disgruntled Sunni tribes, says Waziri, but he doesn’t see how al-Maliki will be able to rally their support anytime soon: “It’s too late to think we can depend on another Awakening movement.”

Ultimately, Iraq’s Sunnis are likely to tire of their temporary allies in ISIS, particularly as that group moves to enforce its draconian interpretation of Islamic law, or if it launches another bloody campaign of violence in its attempt to take the rest of the country. But by the time the tribes genuinely rise up in disgust at ISIS’s handiwork, Iraq may have already been lost.

TIME Foreign Policy

How We Got Here: Assessing Culpability for Iraq

Maliki gets most of the blame, but the last two U.S. presidents deserve some, too


There is plenty of blame to go around for Iraq’s current troubles. Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has to shoulder the most responsibility as his nation collapses around him. But two U.S. presidents have their share, too: George W. Bush for invading in the first place, and Barack Obama for not fighting hard enough to maintain a U.S. troop presence post-2011, according to military strategists.

“We got out too early,” retired Marine general Anthony Zinni, who served as chief of U.S. Central Command, which includes Iraq, says flatly.

The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) may be so brutal it gets kicked out of al-Qaeda, but Maliki is no prize. He has repressed the Sunnis and Kurds, promoted Shi’ite officers in the Iraq military who didn’t warrant higher rank, and refused to share power. He used Iraqi security forces to attack peaceful Sunni protests and sidelined the Sunni Sons of Iraq that played an important role in bringing peace to Anbar province.

“Maliki was primarily concerned not with the military situation, but with his own political power,” says Anthony Cordesman, a military analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “He was deeply concerned that if we had stayed he wouldn’t be able to hold together what he thought he had done during 2010 and 2011, which was put virtually all of the instruments of state power under the authority of the prime minister’s office.”

A retired Army officer who served in Iraq agrees. “We made a mistake in not maintaining a security guarantee with the Iraqi government to keep security advisers and airpower there, which obviously would make short work of this insurgent challenge,” John Nagl says. “Had we maintained a small security presence of less than 10,000 troops, the sort that we ought to be planning to maintain in Afghanistan for the indefinite future, Iraq would still be together.”

But didn’t the Obama Administration’s failure to secure a status-of-forces agreement immunizing U.S. troops from Iraqi law doom the deal? “We could have pushed a whole lot harder to get the SOFA,” Nagl says. “An American troop and airpower commitment would not just have served as a check on insurgent ambition, but would also have served as a lever with which to move Maliki,” he adds. “We removed both the carrot and the stick, in an unforced error.”

“Maliki is doing the same thing in Iraq that [Mohamed] Morsi did Egypt,” Zinni says. “When I did the assessment in Iraq in the middle of the war [for the U.S. government in 2008] I could see that when Maliki was coming in. Everybody in the country—even the Arabs—were saying ‘Maliki’s the wrong guy—he’ll mouth the words now, but he’ll be totally Shia and won’t be inclusive.’ He made two mistakes: He didn’t bring enough Sunnis into his government—he didn’t distribute the resources well—and he controlled everything from Baghdad. There needed to be more provincial and district distribution. He needs a lesson in Governance 101.”

There’s not much the U.S. can do militarily to help, says Stephen Biddle, a military analyst at the Council on Foreign Relations who has advised the Pentagon on Iraq strategy. “We can help at the margin, but we’ve let the horse out, and we’re trying to shut the barn door now,” he says. “What would have helped the most is if we hadn’t pulled the troops out in ’11.”

So who’s responsible for that? “The Obama Administration bears a lot of responsibility for this,” Biddle says. “So do Iraqis. But we don’t control them as much as we control us.”

TIME Syria

Syria Looks Across The Border As Violence Engulfs Iraq

Demonstrators chant pro-al-Qaida-inspired Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) as they carry al-Qaida flags in front of the provincial government headquarters in Mosul, June 16.
Demonstrators chant pro-al-Qaida-inspired Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) as they carry al-Qaida flags in front of the provincial government headquarters in Mosul, June 16. AP

The common belief among Syrian government figures and rebels is that the rise of ISIS stems from America’s inability to react decisively to its civil war

The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), the ultra-extremist Sunni group with a firmly entrenched presence on either side of the Syrian-Iraqi border, demonstrated a sobering military prowess over the past week. Their battle-hardened forces swept into Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city, and proceeded to capture a number of key cities as they made the trek south toward the capital Baghdad.

But to Syrians engulfed in their own bloody struggle next door, with a mostly Sunni insurgency battling government forces backed by Shiite militants, the surprise offensive revealed less about the extraordinary power of ISIS and more about the inconstancy of the U.S. Though Syria may be a deeply polarized country, there is a common thread that runs through the divergent narratives of the regime and its opposition; that America’s wavering stance toward recent events in Syria has catalyzed extremism and propelled ISIS to prominence.

Maria Saadeh, a member of the Syrian parliament, told TIME in a phone interview that recent events in Iraq speak to the failures of American policy in the region, illustrating that the West needs to collaborate with President Bashar Assad to check the influence of extremists. If the U.S. really cared about stemming the tide of Sunni extremists into Iraq, she said, then now would be the time to prove it by joining forces with Assad and his allies. Otherwise, the U.S. will have revealed its nefarious scheme to intentionally plunge the region into a senseless cycle of violence.

“The Americans have been hesitating for a long time. Obama has done more harm than good by announcing he would intervene against ISIS then backpedalling,” she said.

The Syrian opposition, however, claimed they have been warning its friends in Washington about this moment for three years. This is a day of reckoning for Americans, says Ahmad Ramadan, a senior member of the National Coalition. The United States could have contained the terrorist threat early on when the Syrian opposition offered to fight ISIS on its behalf.

Yet the U.S. consistently refused to funnel military aid to moderate rebels under the pretext that it could fall into the wrong hands, he said. As a result, moderate fighters were left unequipped and the extremist group, dominated by foreigners, acquired swathes of territory in northern Syria, dealt a severe blow to rival rebel factions and overshadowed the uprising against president Assad’s rule.

“I told Hillary Clinton in 2011 that if they don’t help us fill the void in Syria, al-Qaeda will step in,” he said.

To the Syrian fighters, ISIS’s grandiose dream of establishing an Islamic Caliphate in the Levant has sabotaged their humble goal of overthrowing Assad. They had to divert their scarce resources and manpower to neutralize ISIS fighters, paving the way for government forces to recapture lost territory. “When the rebels attempted to stem ISIS advances, the U.S. failed to provide the weaponry needed for an operation of this magnitude,” said Ramadan.

The possibility that President Obama will order military strikes against ISIS targets in Iraq has rebel forces in Syria wondering just how friendly the U.S. really is to their cause. “If the U.S. intervenes now to strike ISIS while leaving the regime unscathed, it will convey to Syrians that it’s not the killed who matter, but rather one brand of killers,” said Omar Abu Layla, an 25-year-old activist who recently fled Deir Ezzor.

No one in Syria feels the wrath of ISIS more than the inhabitants of the Eastern province of Deir Ezzor, which borders Iraq. Residents in the provincial capital are trapped between Assad’s forces who hold the south and the west of the suburbs, and ISIS which controls the oil-rich north and east. Local women are reportedly selling their jewelry to buy ammunition for the fighters, and activists constantly worry about hearing the blood-curdling ISIS slogan “It is staying and it will expand”.

“All they need is to take all of Deir Ezzor to connect the supply lines from Mosul to Raqqa,” said al-Furat a 26-year-old activist in Deir Ezzor. “If that happens, good luck to God trying to dislodge them.”

For their Iraqi brethren, Syrian rebels have one word of advice. In Iraq, widespread Sunni discontent with Prime Minister Maliki’s Shi’ite-dominated government has catapulted ISIS to the forefront of the rebellion, but embittered Syrian rebels who sympathize with their co-religionists’ plight in Iraq warn them not to succumb to a marriage of convenience with ISIS.

“I support the uprising of our Sunni brothers in Iraq against Maliki,” said Abu Thabet a 31-year-old fighter in Aleppo suburbs. “But beware of today’s allies, for they are tomorrow’s enemies.”


So How Successful Is the U.S. When It Comes to Ending Wars?

Kosovo Force (KFOR) soldiers from Greece, Germany and the U.S. stand guard at the closed Serbia-Kosovo border crossing of Jarinje
Kosovo Force soldiers from Greece, Germany and the U.S. stand guard at the closed Serbia-Kosovo border crossing of Jarinje on Sept. 29, 2011. Marko Djurica— Reuters

The U.S. has a mixed record when it comes to wrapping up conflicts, but one thing seems clear: pulling out suddenly, and totally, is never really a good idea

Ending a war is often a complicated affair.

In December 2011, President Obama told U.S. troops returning home from their final tours in Iraq that the American mission in the country was effectively accomplished.

“We’re leaving behind a sovereign, stable and self-reliant Iraq with a representative government that was elected by its people,” said Obama during a ceremony at Fort Bragg. He was wrong. Iraq was still fragile and haunted by simmering sectarian tensions.

The blitzkrieg offensive led by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and a smattering of Sunni militias last week across the country’s northwest has renewed discussion about the Obama Administration’s failure to negotiate a deal to leave behind a residual force in the country.

Debates over leaving American boots on the ground in foreign nations, after years of war, are often heated, especially when the conflicts were deeply unpopular. But here’s a quick rundown of how major U.S. withdrawals fared when peacekeeping outfits stayed behind in foreign theaters — vs. what happened when the military simply packed up camp and went home.


After six years of invasions, bombing campaigns, offensives and counteroffensives across Asia, the Second World War in the Pacific was brought to an end with Japan’s formal surrender on Sept. 2, 1945. The country’s military was disbanded by General Douglas MacArthur and a new “pacifist” constitution was drawn up to govern the nation.

Tokyo and Washington later signed a defense treaty that would allow U.S. forces to remain in the country and, in return, the American military would be responsible for the nation’s security. Today, 38,000 U.S. troops are still stationed in Japan at installations across the archipelago nation. How has the agreement fared? Extremely well. Japan has not engaged in any major military conflict since World War II and currently has the third largest economy in the world.


In the wake of Tokyo’s pullout from the peninsula in 1945 after the end of World War II, the U.S. established a residual presence south of the 38th parallel that was mostly made up of a small advisory force meant to help train the South Korean military.

However, according to Dr. Kalev I. Sepp, a former Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense: “Their presence, unsupported by air power or ground combat units, did not deter the North Korean army from invading the South in 1950, and almost conquering the entire country.”

Following years of bloody civil war in Korea, the 1953 armistice brought fighting between Pyongyang and Seoul to an end. In the war’s wake, the U.S. has maintained a massive military presence in the country, which includes infantry divisions, fighter jets and nearby battle fleets. Approximately 28,500 American troops are currently stationed in South Korea.

“This powerful deterrent force held the North Korean dictatorship in check for over a half-century to today, supporting the U.S. policy of defense of democratic South Korea,” says Sepp.

Although the Korean Peninsula is still technically at war, South Korea has enjoyed decades of peaceful development that have transformed the country from a flattened war zone to a humming international hub of commerce.


The precipitous collapse of the Southern Vietnamese government in the face of a massive Hanoi-led offensive marked one of the most embarrassing moments in the history of U.S. foreign policy, after tens of thousands of American lives were lost and billions of dollars poured into the floundering Republic of Vietnam.

In January 1973, Hanoi and Washington inked the Paris Peace Accords and the U.S. pulled out its troops just two months later.

Although President Richard Nixon claimed the deal would “end the war and bring peace with honor,” by April 1975, the North Vietnamese overran the south, and on April 30 tanks slammed through the gates of the Presidential Palace in Saigon. The Republic of Vietnam vanished and the country was reunited under communist rule after decades of conflict and more than a century of colonial occupation.

The country was almost immediately pinned down in large-scale wars with Cambodia and China following the American pullout. Another 20 years would pass before the U.S. and Vietnam would normalize relations.

The Balkans

U.S.-led NATO offensives in Bosnia and Kosovo, in the wake of years of gruesome sectarian war in the former Yugoslavian territories, ended with negotiated deals ironed out in Dayton, Ohio, and in a U.N. Security Council Resolution. Following the agreements, massive peacekeeping forces were left behind in both countries and then gradually withdrawn as tensions cooled between the various ethnic groups and stakeholders in the region.

In Bosnia, approximately 54,000 peacekeepers had boots on the ground in 1995, but by 2011 only a few thousand remained. Similarly, 50,000 peacekeepers were deployed to Kosovo in 1999. As of last year, about 5,000 remained.

“I think the key lesson to learn from the Balkans is when you’ve got a highly mobilized ethno-sectarian identity war, like we had in the Balkans and like we had in Iraq by 2006, people don’t just get over these kinds of fears and hatreds that sort of warfare produces overnight,” Stephen Biddle, adjunct senior fellow for defense policy at the Council on Foreign Relations, tells TIME.

According to Biddle, residual forces in the Balkans provided a textbook example of how peacekeepers can be utilized to create breathing space for states recovering from bloody bouts of sectarian fighting and provide a way for grievances to be mediated instead of allowing them to relapse into tit-for-tat violence.

“[It] in turn tends to keep the temperature down and the violence level under wraps as the various internal parties gradually relearn to cooperate with each other,” says Biddle.

TIME Foreign Policy

Cheney on Obama’s Foreign Policy: ‘Rarely Has a U.S. President Been So Wrong About So Much’

Dick And Lynne Cheney Participate In Book Discussion In Washington
Former U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney talks about his wife Lynne Cheney's book James Madison: A Life Reconsidered in Washington on May 12, 2014 Win McNamee—Getty Images

The former Vice President, who spearheaded the plans to invade Iraq in 2003, says President Obama is responsible for the recent gains of Sunni extremists militias in the country

Dick Cheney took off the gloves and let his dukes fly in an all-out assault on President Obama’s foreign policy decisions in the Middle East, in a scorching column published in the Wall Street Journal on Tuesday.

In the op-ed, penned with his pundit daughter Liz, former Vice President Cheney places the precipitous collapse of the Iraqi state, and the renewed civil war in the country, squarely on the shoulders of the Obama Administration.

“Rarely has a U.S. President been so wrong about so much at the expense of so many,” writes Cheney. “Too many times to count, Mr. Obama has told us he is ‘ending’ the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan — as though wishing made it so.”

Cheney cites Obama’s decision to withdraw all military forces from Iraq as one of the principal reasons why the country is again enmeshed in conflict.

“Mr. Obama had only to negotiate an agreement to leave behind some residual American forces, training and intelligence capabilities to help secure the peace,” writes Cheney. “Instead, he abandoned Iraq and we are watching American defeat snatched from the jaws of victory.”

The column comes a week after the seizure of a string of cities across northern Iraq by former al-Qaeda affiliate the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. Sunni militias are reportedly inching closer to Baghdad in what analysts predict will lead to massive bloodshed.

Cheney is largely credited during his tenure in office with being one of the chief architects of the 2003 Iraq invasion, which in turn unleashed a crippling civil war in the country. A mammoth counterinsurgency effort by the U.S. in 2007 succeeded in securing cease-fires with Sunni and Shi‘ite militias and for a time appeared to have wiped out al-Qaeda-affiliated forces in Iraq. However, those gains were reversed when the U.S. withdrew its military forces from the country in 2011.

Cheney’s complete column can be read here.

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