U.S. still needed in Iraq, former State Dept. representative says

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Men in the Iraqi Army in Habbaniyah, Iraq gather together. Although the Iraq War officially ended in 2011, U.S. troops are still deployed there, according to J. Kael Weston, who spent seven years as a State Department representative with the military in Iraq and Afghanistan. (J. Kael Weston)

J. Kael Weston spent seven years as a State Department representative with the military in Iraq and Afghanistan and wrote the book “The Mirror Test: America at War in Iraq and Afghanistan.” Although Weston said he does not believe the Iraq War was justified, he said he believes the U.S. needed to do its best to make sure the Iraqi government is stable before pulling out.

“A vacuum is probably the worst outcome because then we really don’t have an influence, not only militarily, but we also don’t have an influence on the politics in that country,”  Weston said in an interview on the BYU campus.

The White House announced Iraq’s emergency status is being extended past May 22, 2017, for one year.

The White House statement says the Iraq emergency status would continue because “the obstacles to the orderly reconstruction of Iraq; the restoration and maintenance of peace and security in the country and the development of political, administrative and economic institutions in Iraq continue to pose an unusual and extraordinary threat to the national security and foreign policy of the United States.”

The U.S. is also reportedly considering sending more troops to Afghanistan, according to a press release by Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah.

Weston said a general asked for an additional 4,000 to 5,000 troops, and he predicted the general would get that — at a minimum.

Weston said he has always believed the U.S. should have as few troops as possible in Afghanistan for as long as necessary, but he did not know how many troops that would be. He said approving the troop increase was better than not approving it.

“I do think it’s too risky to abandon the longest war in American history,” Weston said. “The instability, I think, could create a situation where terrorists who do have designs to attack us could have a safe haven.”

The War in Afghanistan and the Iraq War began in 2001 and 2003, respectively. Both are considered part of the “War on Terror.” Weston said an interesting difference between these two wars and past wars is how disconnected the American home front is from the wars being fought.

“Wars, in a way, are easier to fight when the people are disconnected from the wars because the pain is not felt in the communities; the pain is not felt in a more shared sense,” Weston said. “It’s felt by a very narrow part of our community, particularly the military.”

Weston said he wrote his book to give a voice to the Afghans and Iraqis, as well as the troops who have experienced the wars. He said there is power in providing them “a voice from the grave.”

“We owe it, I think, to the Iraqis and the Afghans because our war front is their home front,” Weston said. “They never get to redeploy to a safe place. The war’s just still going on in their neighborhoods and in their villages.”

Girls pose at the U.S. funded health clinic in Khost, Afghanistan. John Snook, who served in Afghanistan and Iraq, said it’s important for Americans to understand Iraqis and Afghans also want to remove the terrorists from their countries. (J Kael Weston)

University of Utah student John Snook spent 18 months in Afghanistan and 20 months in Iraq while serving in the U.S. Army from 1998 to 2004. He said it’s important for Americans to understand how many people in those countries want to remove the terrorists as well, not to be labeled with them.

“We’re not fighting everyone,” Snook said. “We’re fighting a few select.”

Ted Ellsworth, a BYU alumnus with a bachelor’s degree in Middle East Studies and Arabic, was president of the Middle East Studies Arabic Students club. Ellsworth said people need to remember those in Afghanistan and Iraq are trying to deal with the conflict, as well.

“We tend to kind of distance ourselves from it rather than viewing the human aspect of it, which is that these are numerous people, many of whom are suffering as a result of the conflicts within their country, who don’t feel passionate about any particular group, who just want peace,” Ellsworth said.

Ellsworth said he also wished people would stay up-to-date with the current events around these issues. He said while the complexities of the wars can be intimidating, people need to study them because America has entangled itself in these countries and “our actions have consequences.”

“Yes, there are ways to simplify the conflict, but don’t oversimplify it for the sake of ease,” Ellsworth said.

Weston said these wars have showed the U.S. some important lessons — not only about others, but also about itself.

“Finally I’ll say that these wars have taught me for seven years that we have limits,” Weston said. “The United States has limits, and that’s not a bad thing to know. It took us a long time, I think, to acknowledge that.”