For Elan Carr, learning of last week’s capture of Mosul by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS)—a Sunni terrorist group—was especially painful.
Now readying himself for November elections in which he, a Republican, will be fighting an uphill battle against Democrat Ted Lieu to represent California’s 33rd congressional district, Carr, a criminal prosecutor, arrived in Iraq in Fall 2003 as an enlisted volunteer for the second stage of Operation Iraqi Freedom.
He was tasked with leading a team of anti-terrorism operatives in clearing out urban areas and building relationships among Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds, in the name of creating an inclusive and democratic country that could withstand ever-present ethnic and religious tensions.
Following the U.S. military’s rapid dismantling of Saddam Hussein’s government, Iraq’s cities were perfect breeding grounds for terrorists and insurgents. Carr and his team conducted numerous missions in Iraq’s Sunni-dominated urban centers in the north, including Mosul and Kirkuk, two major cities that were captured last week by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), a Sunni terrorist group that poured into Iraq from Syria and aims to establish an Islamist caliphate.
Now, with ISIS advancing closer and closer to Baghdad, the Kurds may not be far from carving out their own state as Iraq’s Sunnis and Shiites slaughter one another—the (American) dream of a functional democracy in Iraq appears all but shattered.
In just over a week, ISIS has seized Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city, Baiji, and Tikrit, rapidly unraveling a country that, only a few years ago, appeared on the road, albeit a very windy one, to reaching some measure of relative peace and stability.
As hundreds of thousands of civilians flee towards territories still under control of the government or Kurdish security forces, many Iraqi police and military personnel have reportedly abandoned their posts, attempting to escape unnoticed in civilian clothing.
Meanwhile, ISIS has marched closer and closer to the Iraqi capital of Baghdad, capturing Tikrit on Jun. 10—which is the hometown of Iraq’s former dictator Saddam Hussein—and Sadiyah and Jalawla on Jun. 12, massacring soldiers and civilians as they advance.
Last weekend, the group released photos on Twitter that appear to give some credence to its claims of the mass execution of 1,700 Shia Iraqi troops that were captured.
Carr understandably feels frustrated at watching these cities fall less than three years after American forces completed their withdrawal in December 2011.
He recounted an operation in Mosul in which his team explored an area around a Baathist government building that the Air Force bombed out. Most of his missions, he said, focused on gathering intelligence to prevent attacks—usually from Sunni groups—against American and coalition forces.
Although congressional candidate Carr did discuss what a potential Congressman Carr would propose, he conceded that Iraq may very well be “past the brink of total disaster.”
He wants the Obama administration to try to “co-opt” Sunni tribes by pledging aid on the condition that they cut ties with ISIS and other terrorist groups.
Beyond, that, though, he fears that by America “ceding [Prime Minister Nouri-al] Maliki and [the] Shiites to the Iranians,” Iraq’s Sunnis feel an existential threat from Maliki and his Iranian allies, which, without the buffer of an American military presence, has pushed Iraq’s Sunnis to “build their own terrorist armies.”
“The way we pulled out and the way we announced our lack of willingness to commit there really invited the [Shia] Iraqis to turn to other powers in the region,” Carr said. By “other powers,” he meant Iran, the “dominant hegemon” in the region feared by many Sunnis.
Simply put: To Iraq’s Sunnis, ISIS seems like a reasonable alternative to an Iran-backed Maliki government.
“Al Monitor” reports that the marauding band of terrorists was welcomed by much of the population in Mosul, which was more than happy to see Maliki’s military routed.
So, according to Carr, should either of the two most serious options circulating in the media—American airstrikes and cooperation with Iran—be on the table given that a terrorist state in Iraq would be far more dangerous than a corrupt and oppressive Maliki government?
“Working with Iran against ISIS would, without question, be the most misguided thing to do,” Carr said, adding a rhetorical question that he feels is equally misguided, “Why not work with ISIS against Iran? They are each as equally ridiculous."
As for military force limited to airstrikes?
“They would be meaningless,” Carr said. “Military force should be used [either] not at all or with overwhelming power.”
Not the answer you’d necessarily expect to hear from a Republican running primarily on a platform of a muscular foreign policy.
“Airstrikes would be nothing other than posturing,” Carr continued. “I would be very much against that and it would only harden our enemy.”
Carr sounded resigned to the possibility (or likelihood) that, for now, Iraq is lost.
“At this point it is very hard to unring that bell. It’s very hard to recapture everything we’ve lost,” Carr said, adding that while he did support an eventual withdrawal of American forces, he wishes it were done differently.
“We needed to leave in the right way. It wasn't that way—it didn't have to be that way.”