WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama is confronted with a recent burst of strength by al-Qaida chipping away at the remains of Mideast stability, testing his hands-off approach to conflicts in Iraq and Syria at the same time he pushes to keep thousands of U.S. forces in Afghanistan.
Al-Qaida-backed fighters have fought hard against other rebel groups in Syria, in a sideshow to the battle to unseat President Bashar Assad. Across the border in Iraq, they led a surprisingly strong campaign to take two of the cities U.S. forces suffered heavy losses to protect.
This invigorated front highlights the tension between two of Obama’s top foreign policy tenets: to end American involvement in Mideast wars and eradicate insurgent extremists — specifically al-Qaida. It also raises questions about the future U.S. role in the region if militants overtake American gains made during more than a decade of war.
In Afghanistan, Obama already decided to continue the fight against extremists, as long as Afghan President Hamid Karzai signs off on a joint security agreement. Obama seeks to leave as many as 10,000 troops there beyond December, extending what already has become the longest U.S. war. But officials said he would be willing to withdraw completely at the end of this year if the security agreement cannot be finalized.
That would mirror the U.S. exit from Iraq, the other unpopular war Obama inherited. A spike in sectarian violence followed the U.S. withdrawal at the end of 2011, and now followed by the recent, alarming takeover of Ramadi and Fallujah by an al-Qaida affiliate known as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant.
Marina Ottaway, a senior scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington, said the extremists taking hold in Iraq are a spillover from the conflict in neighboring Syria and were bolstered by Obama’s reluctance to arm the more moderate rebels fighting Assad.
“There is no doubt that the U.S. policy helped create a vacuum in which the only effective forces were the radical forces,” Ottaway said Tuesday.
Syria’s bloody civil war had not yet begun when the U.S. was making plans to withdraw from Iraq. But White House officials contended keeping American troops in Iraq would have done little to stop the current violence.
“There was sectarian conflict, violent sectarian conflict, in Iraq when there were 150,000 U.S. troops on the ground there,” White House spokesman Jay Carney said. “So, the idea that this would not be happening if there were 10,000 troops in Iraq I think bears scrutiny.”
Still, Army Chief of Staff Gen. Ray Odierno, a former top commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, said al-Qaida and other insurgents are seeking to take advantage of sectarian tensions across much of the Mideast.
“This is not just about Iraq,” Odierno told reporters Tuesday. “It’s something that we have to be cognizant of as we look across the Middle East: What’s going on in Syria, what’s going on in Lebanon, what’s going on inside of Iraq.”
Iraq now seeks more U.S. weapons, aircraft and intelligence assistance to help battle al-Qaida. Iraqi Ambassador Lukman Faily said in an interview that while Baghdad does not want U.S. troops to return, perhaps Kabul should not reject plans for Americans to stay in Afghanistan.