DAVID GREENE, HOST:
Russia has become a partner in Syria to help fight ISIS. Another front in that war is Iraq, and this morning, a military operation is underway in an Iraqi city. U.S. and Iraqi forces are trying to retake the center of Ramadi, which ISIS has controlled. How we got here is something the Republican presidential candidates often bring up.
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JEB BUSH: Barack Obama became president, and he abandoned Iraq. He left. And when he left, al-Qaida was done for. ISIS was created because of the void that we left. And that void now exists as a caliphate the size of Indiana.
GREENE: That is Jeb Bush. Here is Carly Fiorina.
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CARLY FIORINA: And let us remember one other thing. Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama are responsible for the growth of ISIS because they precipitously withdrew from Iraq in 2011 against the advice of every single general, and for political expediency.
GREENE: So does President Obama bear responsibility for withdrawing troops from Iraq, allowing ISIS to grow up in the vacuum? NPR's Alice Fordham explores this question. She's been covering Iraq for six years.
ALICE FORDHAM, BYLINE: First, we have to decide on a starting point. Democrats, and even a few Republicans, say it was the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq that led to the problems there today. But if we take the invasion as a given, the charge against Obama breaks down into two questions. Is Obama responsible for the timing of the troop withdrawal from Iraq? And did ISIS grow strong because of that? I've got answers for both - though not simple ones. OK, first, is Obama responsible for pulling troops out of Iraq? Well, it was President George W. Bush who signed the agreement in 2008 calling for the troops to leave.
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GEORGE BUSH: The agreement lays out a framework for the withdrawal of American forces in Iraq - a withdrawal that is possible because of the success of the surge.
FORDHAM: Moments after he said those words, an Iraqi journalist threw his shoes at the president. We do have to remember, most Iraqis saw the Americans as occupiers and blamed them for civilian deaths. Iraq's then-prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, summed up the sentiment at the time.
NOURI AL-MALIKI: (Speaking Arabic).
FORDHAM: He's saying his country's sovereignty is undermined by the presence of foreign troops and that Iraq should get rid of them to protect its democracy. By the time Obama came to office, fully three-quarters of Americans supported the withdrawal. Thousands of American troops had died. Still, there were some, including U.S. Senators, saying the troops should stay just in case things went downhill. They say Obama should have sold the idea to Maliki. Iraq analyst Kirk Sowell says Obama never really tried.
KIRK SOWELL: This is one of the criticisms of Obama is that he sort of wanted the negotiations to fail. So, you know, he didn't even talk to Maliki until, basically, it was all over.
FORDHAM: For example, the Obama administration said troops couldn't stay in Iraq unless the Iraqi parliament granted immunity from Iraqi law - a nearly impossible hurdle. But does Obama bear responsibility for the timing of the troop withdrawals? On balance, no - he was following through on an agreement made by Bush and abiding by the will of the Iraqi and American people. All right, so on to the next question. Did with the withdrawal of troops lead to the rise of ISIS? Well, one thing that led to the growth of ISIS was a big change for Iraq's Sunni minority. The U.S. military had organized Sunni tribes to fight against insurgents, which worked pretty well. The Americans paid them, helped arm them and gave them air cover. I speak to a lot of Sunni tribal leaders, like sheikh Hamid Tayess.
HAMID TAYESS: (Speaking Arabic).
FORDHAM: He told me that in 2006, his fighters worked closely with the Americans to defeat al-Qaida, and he thinks they did a great job. But a lot of those sheikhs tell me once the Americans left, the Sunnis suffered under a government dominated by Shiites. That government stopped paying most of them, and even arrested many. And Obama continued to support that government, even as Sunni fear and anger grew. Here is sheikh Zeidan al-Jabri, who led a series of Sunni protests.
ZEIDAN AL-JABRI: (Speaking Arabic).
FORDHAM: He says the world looked away as Prime Minister Maliki attacked peaceful protests, killing hundreds of innocent demonstrators. So some Sunnis, including Jabri himself, were drawn back to the insurgency. ISIS found supporters and gained ground. And yes, much of that could have been prevented by a big U.S. troop presence. The other thing that happened after the Americans left was that the Iraqi Army deteriorated dramatically. Here's American Major General Paul E. Funk.
PAUL E. FUNK: They really did become relatively complacent. And then flat-out just didn't train - didn't spend the money to do it, didn't maintain the systems. And so therein lies the problem.
FORDHAM: And corruption in the army ran rampant - supplies were stolen, soldiers were paid who never reported for duty. And so when ISIS came rushing into the city of Mosul last year, the military collapsed. I met one of the defeated Iraqi troops named Bahr Ibrahim.
BAHR IBRAHIM: (Speaking Arabic).
FORDHAM: He told me, yeah, we fought, but we were short of men and weapons. ISIS quickly beat them. So even if on our first question, no, Obama shouldn't shoulder all the blame for the timing, on our second question, yes. The withdrawal of U.S. troops helped ISIS by weakening Iraq's security forces and reigniting Sunni anger. But finally, the Republicans' claim that ISIS grew because Obama withdrew troops from Iraq still glosses over many other factors beyond America's control, like the fact that the rift between Sunnis and Shiites in Iraq has been going on for centuries, and that wasn't going to be changed by American troops. And another crucial thing is Syria. For reasons completely beyond Obama's control, after 2011, Syria sank into civil war. Suddenly, just over Iraq's borders were vast, ungoverned spaces and lots of weapons. It became a safe haven for ISIS to grow in. The Republican candidates have the benefit of hindsight now. But they couldn't have predicted all the things that contributed to the growth of ISIS back then, and neither could Obama. Alice Fordham, NPR News.
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