After four tours with the U.S. Marines in Iraq, Representative Seth Moulton, a first-term Democrat from Massachusetts, remains focused on the country’s development and its current battle against the ISIS extremist group, and he said he has concluded that its fundamental problems are political. A military strategy that fails to address Iraq’s political weaknesses ensures that American troops—about 5,000 of whom have returned to the country—will be back again five years after ISIS is defeated, Moulton said in an address at the U.S. Institute of Peace. 

moulton and lindborg

Laying out the details of a plan he is pressing to secure the peace in Iraq, Moulton was broadly critical of the Obama administration’s approach, saying the U.S. today has failed to even define what its political goals are for the country. The burden falls on the U.S. to promote reforms that would ease Sunni grievances, help in reconciliation between Baghdad and the Kurdish Regional Government and counter Iranian influence, the representative said. Those efforts can only take place in the context of a unified, federal state, where effective institutions win trust from Iraq’s patchwork of religious, ethnic and tribal constituencies, he said.

“This is a tricky issue that a lot of Americans want to push out of our minds and don’t want to talk about,” he said. “At the least, we owe it to our troops. When you ask young people to go halfway around the globe and put their lives on the line for something, they deserve to know what it is. We ought to be able to give them a plan to succeed.”

“When you ask young people to go halfway around the globe and put their lives on the line for something … we ought to be able to give them a plan to succeed.” – U.S. Representative Seth Moulton

U.S. forces returned to the country after ISIS, a reconstitution of al-Qaida in Iraq that styles itself as the “Islamic State,” swept across northern Iraq in 2014, seizing swaths of territory. The American troops lead an international coalition that has helped Iraqi forces drive ISIS out of major population centers, including Tikrit, Ramadi and Falluja.

Their next major target is Mosul, the country’s second-largest city, which has been controlled by ISIS from the start. But areas that have been cleared face enormous hurdles not only in reconstruction and stabilization but also in reconciling disparate local groups that were divided before by underlying conflicts and have been further traumatized and splintered by the ISIS onslaught.

Moulton, who represents a district that runs north from the Boston suburbs, joined the Marines in 2001 after graduating from Harvard University. As a platoon commander, he was in the first company of Marines to enter Baghdad in 2003, and in 2004 fought in the Battle of Najaf, some of the most intense fighting in the country up to that point. He later served as a special assistant to Army General David Petraeus, working on counter-insurgency operations as well as reconstruction and stabilization. He left the Marines in 2008 with the rank of captain.

Moulton praised the coordination and vision of Petraeus, the military commander in Iraq, and Ambassador Ryan Crocker during the so-called surge of U.S. forces in 2007-2008. The two leaders made clear that the purpose of the military mission was to “create space for Iraqi politics to succeed.” The objective of creating a multi-sectarian central government was clear to everyone, he said.

“As Marines, we understood what we were ultimately fighting for, even when those lofty goals seemed far from the daily grind of raids, patrols and development projects in Iraqi neighborhoods,” he said.

But the “diplomatic surge” advocated by the top two on-the-ground U.S. officials never materialized and the newly constructed U.S. embassy, the largest in the world, was left half empty following the pullout of American troops, Moulton said. It was a point also made earlier this week by former Under Secretary of Defense Michele Flournoy during a discussion at USIP of a report from the Fragility Study Group that she co-chaired with USIP President Nancy Lindborg former Deputy Secretary of State Bill Burns. Flournoy said that, while the Defense Department received 100 percent funding from Congress for its mission, the State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development received less than half and 70-80 percent, respectively, gutting what was intended to be a comprehensive plan.

Subsequently, without a stronger U.S. presence in terms of diplomatic pressure and development assistance and advisory programs, a “terrible prime minister,” Nouri al-Maliki, was free to marginalize Sunnis and enrich his friends while gutting the leadership of the security forces and ministries, Moulton said. Those policies of exclusion on the part of Maliki’s Shia-led government helped open the way for ISIS among embittered Sunnis, he said.

Five years later, American troops are back “to clean up the mess,” he said. He argued that violence and disorder in Iraq can’t be ignored, and for many reasons, including the massive influx of refugees to Europe and the role that Iraq has played as a breeding ground for violent extremists.

 “To paraphrase General Petraeus, ‘Iraq is not Las Vegas; what happens in the Middle East does not stay in the Middle East,’” Moulton said.

Among the steps Moulton called for:

  • A Defined Political Objective. The U.S. must help boost the legitimacy of the Iraqi state by pushing for militias of all stripes to withdraw from towns and cities and by encouraging distribution of political and budgetary authority away from Baghdad.
  • Support for Political Reform. The U.S., having a well-intentioned partner in current Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, should press him to tackle corruption in the Shia elite and support increased Sunni influence in parliament. “The systematic disenfranchisement of Sunnis”—a key factor in ISIS’s advance in 2014—“must end,” Moulton said.
  • Conditioning Military Support on Political Progress. Iraq is dependent on American weapons to fight ISIS, and that leverage should be used to demand political reform as a stepping-stone to long-term stability. Such pressure might slow the recapturing of Mosul from ISIS, but the lack of a post-conflict plan for the city in itself is good reason to delay the battle. “It has been a mistake to provide so much military support to date without demanding any political reforms in return,” he said. “We don’t have a plan for post-conflict Mosul at this point.”
  • Support From Congress for a Diplomatic-Led Strategy. Fewer than 2,000 State Department personnel are now in Baghdad, down from 11,500 in 2013; and $1.6 billion was cut from security and political assistance programs. Support for non-military initiatives must be restored.

Lindborg, who moderated an audience discussion with Moulton, said his recommendations for Iraq largely mirrored the kind of strategic, sustained and integrated approach to stabilizing fragile states advocated in the report by the USIP-based “Fragility Study Groupreleased September 12.

Moulton, she said, has already emerged in Congress as a leading voice on Iraq policy in part because of his experience in working alongside Iraqis and his on-the-ground understanding of the nation’s complexities.

USIP has worked in Iraq since 2003, Lindborg said, supporting dialogues and interventions that have helped ease numerous conflicts on the local level.

“I appreciate the congressman’s emphasis on the need for a political solution and especially the need for reconciliation among the tribes, the factions and the ethnicities,” said Lindborg, a former assistant administrator at USAID. “His comments come at a really critical time.”

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