Vice President Joe Biden says that the self-proclaimed Islamic State is no longer on the move in Iraq.
“The jury’s still out, but the momentum is in the right direction,” Biden said in a speech at National Defense University in Washington, in advance of a visit next week by Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi.
Biden laid out the destructive path of ISIS — also called ISIL — citing the collapse of the Iraqi Army, the fall of Mosul and the “slaughter” and “ethnic cleansing” that followed.
“But the irony, the irony of all ironies, is that Iraq actually helped form its government because of ISIL,” Biden says. “It actually united Iraqis.”
Biden did not mention the decision to pull out all U.S. troops in December 2011, a decision some military and civilian analysts say ultimately helped create an opening for ISIS.
They say the Obama administration did not work hard enough to forge a deal with the government of former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki that would have kept thousands of U.S. troops in Iraq. Once U.S. troops left, Maliki became more and more sectarian, firing key military officers, persecuting the Sunnis and creating a fertile ground for the Islamic State, analysts say.
Retired General David Petraeus had this to say last month at a conference in Iraq: “Could all of this have been averted if we kept 10,000 troops here? I honestly don’t know. I certainly wish we could have tested the proposition and kept a substantial force on the ground.”
And Army Chief of Staff General Ray Odierno, who served as the top commander in Iraq until 2010, said this last September: “If we were there, maybe we would not have seen the breakdown of the government. I think we would have been able to keep a closer eye on what was going on.”
In his speech, Biden agreed that the Maliki government didn’t help matters.
“During the term of the last government, distrust had deepened so profoundly between Sunni, Shia and Kurds creating serious obstacles in a unified effort against ISIL and questioned the willingness whether they were willing to literally stay together,” Biden said.
But according to a new book, The Unraveling: High Hopes and Missed Opportunities in Iraq, by Emma Sky, a top adviser to Odierno, Biden was instrumental in keeping Maliki in power in 2010, even though the Iraqi leader was losing support in his own country.
“(Biden) told Maliki that the U.S. would support him remaining as prime minister,” Sky writes. “The U.S. administration wanted to see an Iraqi government in place before the U.S. midterm elections in November. Maintaining the status quo seemed the quickest path.”
Now Biden is focusing on the new Iraqi leader, saying the Obama administration will talk with Abadi about reaching out to the Sunnis and Kurds and creating a truly unified state.
And Biden said they would also discuss more military training and assistance for Iraqi forces as they take the fight to ISIS in Anbar Province and the city of Mosul.
The vice president obliquely talked about old days in Iraq, a time when tens of thousands of troops were housed in large bases around the country.
Biden said the “small number of [U.S.] advisers” now in Iraq and a “large coalition” of countries are providing help to the Iraqi government in “a smarter way.”