Seems to me we have been here before in Iraq. No, I don’t mean Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2003. I am referring to Operations Provide Comfort I & II and their successor, Operation Northern Watch. Provide Comfort was a United Nations sanctioned effort to provide safety and supplies to Iraq’s Kurds following Operation Desert Storm. Saddam Hussein used the poorly constructed ceasefire agreement to initiate a murderous campaign against both the Kurds in Northern Iraq and the Shia in the South. In order to safely move humanitarian aid into Northern Iraq, Coalition forces declared a no-fly zone. Operation Provide Comfort I lasted for a few months, just long enough to ensure that Kurdish refugees were able to survive and receive assistance. Operation Provide Comfort II followed immediately on the heels of Provide Comfort I and lasted from mid-1991 until the end of 1996. Its purpose was to protect the Kurds from further Iraq aggression. During that time, U.S. fighters shot down a number of Iraqi combat aircraft and bombed airfields and surface-to-air missile batteries. The successor to Operation Provide Comfort II, Operation Northern Watch began at the start of 1997 and continued for another six years until the beginning of Operation Iraqi Freedom. There was also Operation Southern Watch which established a no-fly zone over southern Iraq and ran virtually unchanged and without letup in southern Iraq between 1992 and 2003.
The pattern is repeating itself. A new humanitarian crisis is unfolding in Iraq due in large part to the failure of the United States to act decisively against an emerging threat. The U.S. has acted again to protect Iraqi minorities, including Kurds, from another Sunni threat to their survival, this time the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). U.S. transport aircraft, C-130s and C-17s began delivering humanitarian supplies to refugees trapped by advancing ISIS forces. In addition, carrier-based F/A-18E/Fs have conducted strikes on at least one ISIS position. No matter how these actions are rationalized, this is the beginning of the Third Iraq War.
The same war weariness, lack of foresight and failure of leadership that colored U.S. and international responses to Saddam Hussein’s efforts to defy the United Nations on innumerable resolutions was at play in the Obama Administration’s inaction while ISIS was rising in Syria and even when it began the current offensive in Iraq. The lesson from Operations Northern and Southern Watch for Saddam Hussein was that the U.S. lacked the will to act decisively. Hence, when in the aftermath of September 11 the Bush Administration saw a compelling strategic need to ensure a nuclear-free Iraq, Saddam Hussein didn’t believe that the U.S. was serious. After years of temporizing on assistance to the Syrian rebels, the failure to ensure a status of forces agreement with the government in Baghdad and the “red line” debacle, is it any surprise that ISIS had no apparent fear of the Obama Administration’s response to their offensive? Now, as then, the unwillingness to act decisively and early against a threat to regional peace has resulted in the need to act without the advantages of deliberate planning, a long-term political-military strategy or even the disposition of adequate forces.
ISIS already has gathered sufficient military power, territory and economic resources to be a serious player in the Middle East. It also has a base from which to attack U.S. and Western interests in the region and even support strikes on the U.S. homeland. The U.S. is going to get dragged into the Third Iraq War whether it wants to or not. Should ISIS advance further in the North this will bring the war to the doorstep of Turkey, a NATO country. Should ISIS make good on its goal of taking Baghdad it is likely Iranian military forces will enter the fray. In either case, the U.S. will find itself having to become deeply involved including with boots on the ground.
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