Must give Obama war authorization, but also must insist Iraq stand firm

April 25, 2015
In The News

I spent this past Easter Sunday in Iraq, having brunch with our troops serving in the mission to defeat ISIL. The multiday trip was my first to this war-ravaged country. However, most of the service members I had the honor of meeting have come accustomed to spending Easter and most other holidays in a place with awfully dim prospects for peace and security.

Seeing so many young people my age serving so far from home, I wondered two things: How many more generations of American soldiers will be called to spend their holidays away from family in Iraq; and, is it even worth us being there?

We are deeply rooted in Iraq. Arriving by helicopter into the International Zone (formerly the Green Zone) in Baghdad, I was struck by the permanency of the United States' presence. Buildings are going up, not coming down. On the grounds where U.S. personnel are based, there is a United States Post Office, an outdoor swimming pool and even a bazaar featuring local goods.

These features are the least we could do to accommodate those serving abroad; however, it leaves little doubt as to whether there will be a protracted American presence in Iraq.

Having thousands of troops in Iraq, and no end in sight, raises the question: is it worth it? If this mission turns into merely being Iraq's 911 system, responding to police the latest sectarian conflict, then, no, it's not worth it.

No American troops should die for that mission. For our mission to be worthy, our role should be one that assists in scrubbing ISIL and its evil ways from this Earth, stabilizes Iraq with a political solution to its sectarian violence, and ultimately makes us safer.

To achieve the latter and not get sucked into the former, Congress should first vote on an updated Authorization for use of Military Force (AUMF).

The president is currently conducting operations in Iraq under authorities from 2001 that largely pertain to fighting al-Qaida. A new AUMF should limit our mission to training and equipping the Iraqi Army, provide air and special operations support, prohibit ground combat troops, and set specific time limit on our presence.

Passing a new AUMF not only strengthens the president's hand, but it also makes clear to the Iraqis that our support does not come without limits.

Why should Congress prohibit the use of ground troops? Many people understandably ask, "couldn't our ground troops more swiftly defeat ISIL?" They could.

However, if we unilaterally use our military to do Iraq's bidding, the Iraqi military will learn nothing and will likely find itself in the same vulnerable position it was in pre-ISIL. Also, it should not be discounted what a hard-earned victory over ISIL would do for the confidence of Iraq's military and people.

Our recent training of the Iraqis is paying off. More than 90 percent of the land and property taken by ISIL from the Kurds has been returned. Earlier this month, Iraqi forces took back Tikrit. For the first time in this conflict, ISIL is losing more ground than it's gaining.

A new AUMF may legitimize our presence in Iraq and help number ISIL's days; however, America alone cannot solve the political and religious challenges facing Iraq. Throughout the country, there was a palpable fear that unless Iraq bridges its Sunni-Shiite divide, it's very likely a new terrorist organization will fill the post-ISIL void. America and our allies can assist Iraq by encouraging and fostering political inclusiveness and help Iraq rebuild its economy by better harvesting its own natural resources. But it's ultimately up to Iraq's leaders to find the will to exist as one people, and put pride of country and peace over religious sects that divide and lead to violence.

After traveling across Iraq and meeting our troops and commanders, I sensed our challenge is a little bit like a parent teaching a child to ride a bicycle. The United States is essentially acting as the training wheels for the Iraqi military. But the training wheels must come off soon. And as tempting as it may be to directly intervene to keep Iraq from falling, Iraq must learn to pedal its own two feet to peace, security, and prosperity.

We have in this short window of time our last, best chance to make sure troops from my generation are the last ones called to spend their Easter in Iraq.

Rep. Eric Swalwell is a Congressman from the East Bay and is member of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence.