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Sustained U.S. Leadership Vital to Achieve Long-term Stability in Iraq, Crocker Tells Members of House Armed Services Committee

Nov 6, 2017
Sarah M. Binder
Woodrow Wilson School

Raqqa, the northern Syrian city used as a de facto capital by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), was recently liberated from control of the self-declared caliphate. While the news is welcome, it remains to be seen how ISIL will move forward and what the path to peace and stabilization in Syria, Iraq, and neighboring regions looks like.

An Oct. 3 hearing convened by the Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee of the House Armed Services Committee of the 115th Congress considered how the United States intends to secure peace and achieve success beyond the battlefield, once ISIL is defeated.

Among the testifying witnesses was Amb. Ryan C. Crocker, MCF ’85. Crocker was U.S. ambassador to Iraq from 2007 to 2009 and is a visiting lecturer and diplomat-in-residence for the 2017-18 academic year at Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs. Crocker’s time in Iraq occurred at the height of the surge against al Qaeda, the forerunner of ISIL, which U.S. and Iraqi forces were unable to absolutely eliminate.

In her opening remarks, Chairwoman Vicky Hartzler, R-Mo., said, “Following Operation Iraqi Freedom, the United States worked to re-establish civil institutions and rebuild the military and police forces in Iraq. Nonetheless, conditions in the country deteriorated, leaving a security void that ISIL managed to exploit. We owe it to our men and women in uniform to learn lessons from that experience so that history does not repeat itself. It is critical that we do all we can here in Congress to ensure a stable Iraq after ISIL is defeated.”

Ranking Member Seth Moulton, D-Mass., an Iraq War veteran, issued his own opening statement, noting the need for sufficient post-conflict planning and resourcing. “Local security arrangements are needed for Iraq to be stabilized, for civilians to be able to return to their homes, and to protect against the emergence of an ISIS 2.0. We must hear from this administration how this time will be different.”

Crocker served as a witness on the first panel, which discussed the broader strategic issues associated with ISIL’s loss of territory and highlighted critical issues to be considered as the administration’s Iraq policy evolves. A second panel addressed the numerous challenges associated with stabilization and rebuilding in Iraq and discussed the status of U.S. government efforts to improve the political and security environment there.

Crocker’s testimony centered on two main points: Ensuring stability in Iraq is an issue of vital national security, and the existence of ISIL is not only a security/military problem but rather a symptom of a much deeper, political problem that has long plagued the region. “While the region has always seen coups and revolutions, what we are seeing today is the collapse of states and the parallel rise of non-state actors amid a chronic failure of governance,” he explained.

While the defeat of ISIL is eminent, the United States should not consider its work in Iraq and Syria complete upon the fall of the last bastion of ISIL, Crocker urged. Rather, the defeat of ISIL should mark the beginning of a complex political process.

Crocker outlined several lessons he learned throughout his career — the United States should be careful both of what it gets into and at least as careful what it gets out of, as military interventions in the region have major, extended, and unintended consequences.

“Disengagement can have consequences as profound and unpredictable as those set in motion by one’s initial intervention,” he said. “One does not end wars by withdrawing one’s troops. That simply cedes the battle space to adversaries more determined and more patient, in this case to Iran and its proxies and to ISIL.”

Crocker noted both policies and the absence of policies have consequences, pointing to an example in recent history.

“Following the Soviet invasion and Afghanistan in 1979, the U.S. supported a decade-long anti-Soviet jihad that succeeded — the Soviets withdrew their forces. So did we,” he explained. “We could see that without a common enemy, the rival Afghan factions would fight each other, but that, we believed, was not our problem. The civil war ensued, the Taliban prevailed, and that was the road to 9/11.”

U.S. leadership is essential for the prospect of long-term stability in Iraq, and winning the peace will not happen unless this administration decides that Iraq is a national security priority, Crocker said. A formidable political effort should include substantial and sustained engagement by the U.S. secretary of state, directly with Iraqi leaders, regional states, and the international community. Political solutions in Iraq are not only possible but necessary; however, in Syria, current conditions are far from allowing feasible political solutions, Crocker said.

In addition to Crocker, witnesses, which spanned two panels, included:

  • Brigadier General James Bierman, U.S. Marine Corps, director of Middle East division, Joint Staff J-5, U.S. Department of Defense
  • Dr. Marc Lynch, professor of political science, The George Washington University
  • Joseph S. Pennington, deputy assistant secretary for Iraq, Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs, U.S. Department of State
  • Dr. Kenneth Pollack, resident scholar, American Enterprise Institute
  • Pamela Quanrud, director, Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS, U.S. Department of State
  • Mark Swayne, acting deputy assistant secretary for stability and humanitarian affairs, Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Special Operations/Low Intensity Conflict, U.S. Department of Defense

Crocker served as former dean of the Bush School of Government and Public Service at Texas A&M University and was a former U.S. ambassador to six countries, including Afghanistan (2011-2012), Iraq (2007-2009), Pakistan (2004-2007), Syria (1998-2001), Kuwait (1994-1997), and Lebanon (1990-1993). He has received the honor of career ambassador, the highest honor in the foreign service, among other awards, including the Presidential Medal of Freedom (2009).

The full hearing, “Securing the Peace After the Fall of ISIL,” can be viewed here. Ambassador Crocker’s complete statement can be read here.