Iraq is on the brink.
Eleven years after the U.S.-led invasion, and three years after the last U.S. troops departed, Iraq is now engulfed in a life-or-death struggle with a powerful force of radical Islamists.
And Iraq is losing.
Today, the city of Mosul fell to the rebel fighters of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL or ISIS), a former al Qaeda affiliate that’s dedicated to establishing a fundamentalist Islamic state in Iraq and Syria. ISIS has gained a notorious reputation for its ruthless terror tactics against civilians as well as the armed forces in both countries.
And now ISIS rules in Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city, in Fallujah, the seventh-largest city, and in other towns and cities in the north and west of Iraq. They also rule vast stretches of northern Syria. And they want more.
What is happening is a collapse of the Iraqi government’s capacity to defeat — or even resist — the fierce fighters of ISIS. They are well organized and well equipped, empowered and battled hardened from their involvement in Syria’s civil war just across the border.
In Mosul, many troops in the Iraqi army and police forces — which the U.S. spent billions to train and equip — simply dropped their weapons, stripped off their uniforms and fled, according to numerous reports. And they left behind many of their heavy weapons, which have now fallen into the hands of the rebels.
Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki has declared a state of emergency and asked parliament for a declaration of martial law.
“We will not allow Mosul to be under the shadow of terror and terrorists,” Maliki declared.
But many analysts believe that Maliki and his government are part of the problem. As prime minister, he has failed to bridge Iraq’s bitter Sunni-Shia split, and alienated many of the Sunni tribal leaders who were key to the success of the U.S. “surge” in 2007.
And Maliki has consolidated his personal control over all the security forces, bypassing the chain of command on key issues and weakening the army’s effectiveness.
Now Iraq faces a truly existential threat, as more and more of its territory and major population centers fall under the control of ISIS, and terrorist violence in Baghdad and elsewhere reaches horrific levels.
The U.S. spent upwards of $1 trillion in Iraq between 2003 and 2011, and 4,486 American men and women in uniform died there.
All that blood and treasure: For what?
That is a question many Americans might well ask as they watch Iraq slide deeper into chaos every day.