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The Call-In: Iraq, Then And Now


And this is The Call-In. Today we're talking about Iraq and the United States's lingering military commitment there. The U.S. invaded Iraq 14 years ago. And we asked those of you who served to share your experiences of the war.

ANDREW MORTON: Good afternoon. My name is Andrew Morton (ph).

RICK POPADOTOS: Rick Popadotos (ph).

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: I live in Denver, Colo.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: I'm from Buffalo, N.Y.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: I am a veteran of the American war in Iraq.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #4: I'm calling with regard to the impact of service in Iraq.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #5: And I am a two-time Iraq War vet from the United States Navy.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #6: And I served in the Army as a military police sergeant in Iraq in 2003.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #7: And Iraq will forever be a part of my life. There's a connection there. And we feel a sense of loss anytime we see what's transpired in Iraq.




GARCIA-NAVARRO: Most recently, U.S. troops assisted in efforts to retake Mosul, which was taken over by the Islamic State three years ago. Charles Diamond called to say he was stationed in Mosul from 2007 until 2009. He was an intelligence analyst for the U.S. Army. And back then, he helped train Iraqi security forces to stand up against a variety of insurgent groups.

CHARLES DIAMOND: When we got there, the relationship was not great. And Mosul was a pretty rough place to be. And during the 15 months we were there, it continued to be a dangerous place, but we really got the Iraqis kind of on their feet and operating with us on a day-to-day basis to take over active security operations in Mosul.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: When you left, you felt like you had done something that moved that city forward?

DIAMOND: Absolutely. The status of security for the average person in that city when we got there in 2007 versus how secure the city was by the time we left in 2009 I felt was night and day.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: What did it look like - that security improved?

DIAMOND: So - and remember, the United States had been in Mosul the whole time. It's not like we showed up fresh. I want to be clear. It's not like 3rd Armor Cavalry Regiment showed up and it was, you know, there hadn't been a U.S. footprint up there. But when we got there, a great deal of neighborhoods in Mosul and throughways and major roadways and the infrastructure was blocked off. There were 200-meter-long trash piles blocking highways. Some neighborhoods had walled themselves off completely. And so it was impossible to move things through the city. Commerce wasn't operating. A lot of the souks and bazaars and markets were shut down.

And over the course of 15 months, that all changed. There weren't generally blockages on major throughways. We did it from time to time for security purposes, but they weren't permanently blocked with a 200-meter-long pile of trash. Neighborhoods were no longer completely walled off. And as we - people went on patrols and met with the local mukhtars and local prominent individuals in the various neighborhoods, there were - people were walking around. People were in markets. People were talking to our patrols on a daily basis. We had relationships and interactions with merchants and with prominent persons in every neighborhood in the city by the time we left. And that was a complete change from how it had been before.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Charles Diamond left Mosul in 2009. He remembers when he heard ISIS took over the city in 2014.

DIAMOND: Being a former military guy, I pay an awful lot of attention to the news. And it was grossly disappointing and personally so because I had worked there for a substantial period of time and had worked on exactly that issue. How do we enable the Iraqi security forces to be competent and be capable and be responsible and be duty oriented and all those sorts of things? And here was a great test case. And as far as the news reports indicate, they essentially fled. And that was really disappointing. And also, again, personally, I mean, I worked with a number of Iraqi - members of the Iraqi security forces, and I have no idea what their condition is now. I don't know what happened to them.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Charles Diamond is a former intelligence analyst for the United States Army. He's now a civilian employee for the federal government. Thank you so much.

DIAMOND: Thank you.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: This month the Iraqi government declared victory over ISIS in Mosul. NPR's Jane Arraf went to cover the final days of the conflict, and she spent time with civilians who were going back to their war-ravaged homes.

JANE ARRAF, BYLINE: I'm walking with Minel (ph) down these streets that used to be her neighborhood. Mosul is gone, she's telling me. And everywhere you look, there's destruction. There isn't a single house standing here. We're weaving our way between exploded cars. The street itself is broken. And we're walking over rubble.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Jane started covering Iraq under the late dictator Saddam Hussein. And she's seen Iraq go through many periods of conflict and chaos, so I asked her how the Mosul she just saw compares to the city she remembers.

ARRAF: I have to say that what I've seen in Mosul over the past two weeks is actually worse than anything I've seen in covering Iraq. It's really hard to overemphasize how much destruction there is. And it's just incredibly hard to see how that's going to be put back together again. The thing that's so tragic is the scale of the devastation, each individual tragedy multiplied by thousands. Just the scale of the destruction of the city itself, this historic city which was absolutely stunning and ancient and home to all of these different communities and really a unique city. And now, so much of that is gone.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: What happens now, do you think? I mean, where does Iraq go to put the pieces together?

ARRAF: That's a great question. And the pieces are so sharp and jagged. And it's not really clear, Lulu, that they will fit together. If you take a look at the things that - when you were in Iraq, the things that we were seeing, those seemed complicated at the time. But in a sense, now, there are so many different battles within battles and so many divisions within other divisions. So you have, for instance, the Kurdistan region, which is about to hold a referendum on whether people want to separate from Iraq. So that one has been around for a long time. But then it's not just Sunni against Shia. You've seen this country break apart tribe by tribe, region by region. That doesn't mean that it can't come together again, but one of the tragedies of Iraq has always been that terrible loss of possibility of what could have been.

It's an amazing country, as you know, with amazing people and so many resources and so much destruction and so much waste and still so much corruption. So when you talk to Iraqis in Mosul, they're devastated not just because they've lost their homes and maybe even lost family members, they're devastated because they also have no faith in their government. And they have no faith in the security forces who are supposed to come and keep the peace. And they don't really see what the future can be. And it's very, very bleak according to most Iraqis.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: NPR's Jane Arraf. Really appreciate you taking the time.

ARRAF: Thank you. Thanks so much.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So what's the responsibility of the United States to help put Iraq back together? Andrew Exum is a veteran of the Iraq War. He was also the former deputy assistant secretary of defense for Middle East policy in the Obama administration. I asked him about the role of the U.S. military in Iraq right now.

ANDREW EXUM: So the way in which the U.S. military has approached this engagement in Iraq since we came back into Iraq in 2014 has been radically different than the way that we fought the war in Iraq from 2003 on, where the United States military was front and center, fighting on the frontlines. The byword, or the way in which the U.S. military has described the conflict and the way in which the U.S. military is fighting is by, with and through. In other words, the idea behind this way of fighting was that in 2007, 2008, yes, we defeated al-Qaida in Iraq. But having said that, the Iraqis didn't really own the victory. They didn't own the fight, so they didn't know what came next.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Because we had so many troops there.

EXUM: That's right. We had almost - over 150,000 troops there at the height of the surge. And U.S. forces were really the ones doing the hard fighting. Although, of course, most of the suffering that was, you know, in addition to the 5,000 U.S. soldiers that were killed during the conflict, the Iraqi people suffered greatly. But they didn't play a huge role or an oversized role in the victory over al-Qaida in Iraq.

The United States, when we went back into Iraq in 2014, was determined to do things differently along with our coalition partners. We wanted to put the Iraqis front and center, letting the Iraqis do the hard fighting with the United States and the coalition partners in the background. And the idea here is that if the Iraqi forces owned the fight, they would own the victory and be invested in what comes next.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So the idea is to train Iraqi troops, support Iraqi troops and let them do the fight. But how many people does the United States have on the ground there, and what are they doing?

EXUM: So the United States has about 6,000 forces on the ground in Iraq. Most of them are serving as advisers. Some of them are serving as trainers. Some of them are helping the Iraqis with things in which the Iraqi military has traditionally struggled, such as logistics. The United States obviously is also engaging in direct combat in the skies. And there's also a very small special operations component that exists in order to do the kind of direct action special operations raids.

If, for example, you get an opportunity to go after senior leadership of the Islamic State, but those strikes are very, very rare. The vast, vast majority of the fighting and the dying, it has to be said, has been done by the Iraqi forces. And they, and specifically the Iraqi special operations forces, have really borne the brunt of the human cost of this conflict.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Is this an open-ended commitment? I mean, how long does the United States envision that it will have to stay in Iraq?

EXUM: I think when we talked about the way we were going to carry out this campaign, we envisioned something that was going to be sustainable for the Iraqis and sustainable for the United States. It would not be a huge commitment for the United States to have a few hundred soldiers or even a thousand soldiers in Iraq after the defeat of the Islamic State if it was for the purposes of training back up the Iraqi military, getting them back on their feet and really refocusing them towards what we all know the Islamic State is going to morph into, which is going to be a terrorist threat as opposed to a quasi state. That is seen as sustainable for the U.S.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Where do you see the situation in Iraq right now? I mean, we've obviously had the defeat of ISIS in Mosul by and large. Where is Iraq at now?

EXUM: I think there are three things that are important to highlight. The first is that even though the Islamic State has been defeated in Mosul, the Islamic State is not defeated in Iraq. There were large swaths of Iraqi territory under ISIS control that have largely been bypassed because going to Mosul was seen as so important. The second thing is that the Iraqi forces that have fought for Mosul, that have fought for Fallujah, that have fought for Ramadi have paid dearly in blood. And especially the - when you talk about the Iraqi special operations forces, they need to be re-trained, re-equipped because they have suffered greatly.

And then third, everyone has seen the images from Mosul, from Anbar Province, from Nineveh, from Salahuddin Provinces. We have - there's just tremendous destruction and tens of thousands of internally displaced persons in Iraq. So the next - so the Iraqi government's going to need support from the international community, not just militarily but in terms of humanitarian aid and political support in the coming future.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Does the United States have a responsibility to contribute to that?

EXUM: I think the United States very much has a responsibility to continue to equip and to train the Iraqi security forces. I think Iraq's neighbors also have a tremendous obligation. Thus far, many of the Gulf States have been very reluctant to pony up more support for the Iraqis because they see the government in Baghdad as just a catspaw of Iran. And that's unfortunate because as we have seen over 2013 and 2014, the bad things that happen in Iraq do not necessarily stay in Iraq.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That was Andrew Exum. He's now a contributing editor at The Atlantic magazine. Next week on The Call-In, we want to talk about business and immigration. Agriculture, tourism, technology are all industries that rely on immigrants. Do you work in one of those industries? Have recent changes to immigration policy hurt or helped the way you do business? Call in at 202-216-9217. Be sure to include your full name, contact info and where you're from. That number again - 202-216-9217. And we may use your story on the air. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.