(Editor’s Note: This is the second installment of a three-part examination of the consequences of the Obama Administration’s Iraq policy through the eyes of those who were on the ground in Iraq.)
In our last installment, we saw the hastily concocted plan to withdrawal troop from Iraq through the eyes of CPT P, Army officer who saw the mess left behind first hand. Today, we fast forward from the 2011 drawdown to an Iraq nearly free of US troops, and the situation that unfolded. I’m joined by Jon Harris, former contractor for the Department of Defense and contributor at OpsLens.com.
LN: Jon, thank you for joining me. Tell us a little about yourself.
JH: Well I’m married, I have one son serving in the Army. I’ve been in law enforcement of some form or another for about 40 years. Civilian law enforcement, military, and as a contractor.
LN: That’s quite a career, and thank you for your service. I’d like to ask you about some of the contract work you’ve done. Now you’ve done work in both Iraq and Afghanistan, is that correct? What specifically did you do?
JH: Yes, that is correct. I started in Afghanistan in 2011. There I was a counter-narcotics canine handler and trainer. I got to see how the Taliban is funded through narcotics; a large part my mission was drug interdiction under the Department of Defense. I spent three years doing that job.
LN: And in Iraq?
JH: Iraq was a little different. There I was a counter explosives canine handler. The techniques are the same, but the results are entirely different. I was in Taji and Balad.
LN: When was that?
JH: I started the later part of 2013 and into mid-2014.
LN: That was well after the drawdown of US forces. What kind of US military presence, if any, was there during your time in Iraq?
JH: There was no US military at all, at least not at Balad. It was all contractors and Iraqi military. There was a small contingent at Taji, but even they were leaving when I was there.
LN: Interesting. What was it like working with the Iraqi military, and how different was that from your experience working with the US military?
JH: Honestly, we did not trust them at all. They were a mess. Being former military and seeing the way they operated, I would never want to count on them. They were poorly trained and had no discipline. They were out of themselves for the most part. It was all about money for them.
LN: How so?
JH: The black market was open and sold everything they could steal. They sold anything and everything to the contractors. At Balad, which had been a huge US base, they were dismantling everything they could. Vehicles, gym equipment, facility equipment all ended up for sale on the streets.
LN: Was this only at the lower levels or was it condoned by their commanders?
JH: It was the commanders. The ranks, higher ranks in the Iraqi army, are bought. The commanders would restrict us, the US contractors, from going to an area of the base as they sent soldiers in to loot it. It was very open. There was also a lot of competition between the units. The army manned the walls and did security. The air force operated inside the base. One evening they got into a firefight with each other. It was nuts and all over some conflict between commanders. Corruption was a way of life with the Iraqis.
LN: That’s incredible. Would it be fair to say that the Iraqi units operating at Balad weren’t quite ready for US forces to leave?
JH: I don’t think the Iraqi units anywhere were ready for us to leave. In Taji, an Iraqi civilian that worked with us asked why we ever left. He lamented about how things were working when the US was there now everyone was “Ali Baba.” That’s what they called the people in power, Ali Baba.
LN: As in Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves?
JH: You got it.
LN: With everything that has happened since the US forces left Iraq: the growth of ISIS, the return of US forces, etc. Where do you think we went wrong?
JH: I do not know how correct it was to go into Iraq, but once there we should not have left. All you have to do is look at history. If we go in and break it, like we did the infrastructure there, we need to stay. Europe, Japan, South Korea, all those places we stayed have prospered. Those places we left, places like Somalia and others, have fallen apart for the most part.
JH: At the end of the Iraq War, we had about 10,000 troops left that were just keeping things running. We left, and it fell to ruins. Now we have almost that many back there again, but so much has been lost. In 2014, when I left, much of the country was still running on the military generators we left behind. The entire country is broken
LN: So what’s the answer now? How do we go forward?
JH: I think there are two paths. We can go in and start over in Iraq. The ISIS force is not that big, but the Iraqi government cannot be counted on to fix that, or we stay completely out and let it settle itself. Both options have good and bad outcomes.
A better strategy is to have the Middle Eastern countries fend for themselves in a cooperative manner. Unfortunately history is not on the side of that option. Regardless, there is a vacuum in Iraq for control, the same in many countries in the region. This is such the case that vast area are simply ungoverned. Someone will fill that vacuum. The US, Russia, ISIS, someone will.
LN: And that power vacuum, which has allowed ISIS to grow, is a direct result of our early departure from the region?
JH: I would say so. At the end of the Iraq War, as I said, Iraq was well on its way to success. The government, though very weak, was learning. There is no way a fledgling government with broken infrastructure and an army that had been disbanded can operate and survive when they have to also protect themselves from insurgency such as ISIS. That was not an issue when the US was in the country. In that regards I think we should have treated it like South Korea or like Europe after the Second World War. Things would be in much better shape, and there would be no ISIS. Now we have little presence in the region and little influence. Just recently, Yemen has forbidden US ground troops from doing operations against terrorist in their country. Our influence is waning.
LN: I’m sure we’ll see the results of that waning influence in the months and years to come. Jon Harris, thank you for taking the time to speak with us.
Jon’s story is one echoed by many returning from Iraq. Without US military presence, corruption and complacency rule the day. While some units may be quite capable (as evidenced by CPT P’s experience), the venal ambitions of those who would fill the power vacuum show a government and a military incapable of getting out of its own way.
Join for our third and final installment tomorrow as we speak with Louis, a Marine Combat Veteran who volunteered with the Assyrian militia, fighting ISIS on his own dime.