As ISIS Brewed in Iraq, the White House and Congress Cut Eyes and Ears on the Ground
Jeff Gerth and Joby Warrick report in ProPublica:
A week before the last U.S. soldiers left his country in December 2011, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki traveled to Washington to meet the team that would help shape Iraq’s future once the troops and tanks were gone.
Over dinner at the Blair House, guest quarters for elite White House visitors since the 1940s, the dour Iraqi sipped tea while Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton spoke of how her department’s civilian experts could help Iraqis avoid a return to terrorism and sectarian bloodshed.
Iraq would see a “robust civilian presence,” Clinton told reporters afterward, summing up the Obama administration’s pledges to Maliki. “We are working to achieve that,” she said.
Less than three years later, the relatively calm Iraq that Maliki had led in 2011 was gone. The country’s government was in crisis, its U.S.-trained army humiliated, and a third of its territory overrun by fighters from the Islamic State. Meanwhile, State Department programs aimed at helping Iraqis prevent such an outcome had been slashed or curtailed, and some had never materialized at all.
Clinton’s political foes would later seek to blame her, together with President Obama, for the Islamic State’s stunning takeover of western Iraq, saying the State Department failed to preserve fragile security gains achieved at great cost by U.S. troops. Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump last week asserted that Obama “founded” the Islamic State and that Clinton was “the most valuable player” in the group’s creation. Trump later contended that he was being sarcastic.
But an intensive review of the record during Clinton’s tenure presents a broader picture of missteps and miscalculations by multiple actors — including her State Department as well as the Maliki government, the White House and Congress — that left Iraqi security forces weakened and vulnerable to the Islamic State’s 2014 surge.
Documents and interviews point to ambitious plans by State Department officials to take control of dozens of military-run programs in Iraq, from training assistance for Iraqi police to new intelligence-collection outposts in Mosul and other key Iraqi cities. But the State Department scrapped or truncated many of the plans, sometimes at the behest of a skeptical Congress and other times on orders from the White House, which balked at the high costs and potential risks of U.S. civilians being killed or kidnapped. Still other efforts were thwarted by a Maliki government that viewed many of the programs as an unwelcome intrusion in Iraqi affairs.
Senior State Department leaders were at fault as well, according to documents and interviews with officials who helped manage Iraqi aid programs after the withdrawal. By early 2012, pressed by the White House to reduce the U.S. civilian footprint in Iraq, the department had begun implementing sweeping, across-the-board cuts that extended to security and counterterrorism initiatives once considered crucial for Iraq’s stability after the withdrawal of U.S. troops, a joint investigation by ProPublica and The Washington Post found. . .