A lot has totally changed in Iraq since Army Lt. Col. Tammy Duckworth’s Black Hawk helicopter was shot down over Baghdad in 2004 — however a little amount of the most significant difficulties there remain. Terrorists threaten the stability of the country. The government is facing huge challenges. And the United States is struggling to help Iraqis hold it all together.
Currently a freshman Democratic U.S. senator from Illinois, Duckworth returned to Iraq last week for the very first time since she was wounded there. After meeting with U.S. military commanders on the ground, top Iraqi government officials and international representatives of all kinds, she came back to Washington to sound an alarm about urgent and unsolved problems in the fight against the Islamic State that threaten their security and ours.
“It was my first time back since I was seriously injured, however actually the whole point of it was, I needed to really know what was happening on the ground,” Duckworth told a small group of journalists Wednesday. “Iraq is on the precipice.”
The government in Baghdad, she claimed, is falling short in its commitments to ensure security and further prosperity — long-term challenges with which the United States is trying to help. However one much more urgent problem is that the Islamic State, has largely retreated from Syria, is once again pervasive and active inside Iraq.
“They no longer hold territory, however, they are very much all over the place,” she claimed.
Duckworth claimed the Iraqi government has taken some 30, 000 widows and children of dead Islamic State soldiers and then put them in what amounts to “internment camps” in the desert, with no plan for what to do with them next. Of these, 10,000 are children under age 5. These are generally the family members of Iraqis who were among the most hardcore Islamic State devotees.
Islamic State fighters pass in and out of these camps freely, paying widows’ pensions and recruiting from among the children. While they are there, the terrorists take advantage of the free food and medical care.
“They are allowing themselves to be captured to be taken to camps where they are resting and rejuvenating,” claimed Duckworth. “They are really using it to sort of do a reset .”
The U.S. the government should be putting a lot more pressure on Baghdad to come up with a real plan for how to integrate these people back into society, Duckworth claimed. However, she added, that’s not the only growing security concern that needs urgent attention. Iranian-backed Shiite militias are taking root in areas that were held by Sunnis before the Islamic State took over. A scarcity of reconstruction development is feeding poverty, which in turn is feeding more extremism.
The banking, energy and civil-society sectors are all struggling, that makes real stability only more elusive, she claimed. One would think that after fighting back the Islamic State at great sacrifice — twice, now — the Iraqi government would have more incentive to tackle these root problems.
In the meantime, the U.S. military presence is the “rebar in the structure of the coalition,” Duckworth claimed, meaning that U.S. troops should not leave any time soon. U.S. military commanders on the ground admitted they were not consulted before President Trump tweeted out his decision to withdraw from Syria, she claimed, and therefore they are not able to credibly reassure Iraqis the United States is there to stay.
Duckworth traveled with Sens. Johnny Isakson (R-Ga .) and Angus King (I-Maine), whom she has known as her “tripartisan delegation.” She said all of their Iraqi interlocutors had one consistent request: that the United States does not abandon them after they have fought and bled very much.
“Iraqis spilled blood to save Baghdad from ISIS, and Iraqis have fought for this country,” she claimed she told Iraqi President Barham Salih. “But remember that I spilled my blood here, too.”
Duckworth claimed she is following the model of her hero, the late Senator John McCain, who led a bipartisan congressional effort with then-Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) to normalize relations with Vietnam, the country where McCain spent more than five years in captivity. Duckworth wants Iraq to be a place where she can someday bring her children on vacation, to show them where their mother fought.
What’s ironic is that Duckworth never believed the Iraq invasion was justified, and instead she saw it as a dangerous distraction from the fight against al-Qaeda in Afghanistan after 9/11. But when President George W. Bush gave the order, she volunteered to go. And currently, she has gone back, to ensure her sacrifice and the sacrifices of so many Iraqis were not in vain.
Washington must listen to Duckworth. The United States must enhance its diplomatic and economic engagement in Iraq, declare its long-term commitment to Iraq’s security and push the Iraqi government to make sure another generation of young Americans and Iraqis don’t have to sacrifice more.