President Obama announced recently that with the failure to arrive at a mutually satisfactory arrangement with the Iraqi government regarding the status of US forces stationed in Iraq, the US would withdraw all its troops from Iraq by the end of the year. Many articles and selective leaks from important officials appeared both in the visual and print media that seemed to indicate that a final decision had been taken and that the US was beginning to explore alternative options to ensure that security continued to be maintained in the region. In my view such conclusions are not only premature but, like a mirage in the desert, can be very misleading.
One of the first lessons that one learns in the Arab World and particularly in Iraqi politics is that nothing is ever final. Like the sand dunes in the desert that are here one day and gone the next, so too are positions taken by Arab politicians and governing elites; with flexibility and dexterity being the prized norms. As India’s Ambassador in Iraq, I was often very solemnly handed over demarches by Iraqi Ministers reflecting the Iraqi position, only for me to discover that the Iraqi position had changed overnight! Imagine what my government would have thought if I had diligently reported as soon as possible the Iraqi position without waiting for the inevitable ‘final’ position. When questioned on why the change, Iraqi Ministers would shrug their shoulders and inevitably roll their eyes heavenwards, without uttering a word in explanation. I understood the silent meaning. Orders from Saddam Hussein! I doubt very much if matters have materially changed since then, although the power centre is now diffused and the principal actors are obviously different.
Be that as it may, how have the Americans found themselves in such an unenviable position? From entering Iraq as liberators and getting rid of the odious dictatorship of Saddam to be asked to leave rather unceremoniously by a nondescript Shiite-led dispensation must be truly galling. In a way it reflects the complete misjudgement of the Iraqi mind and temper by the Americans as also the failure to understand the strategic implications of helping to install the Shiites of Iraq to power in this oil rich country. But are the Americans really unaware of the situation and about to leave or is it only shadow boxing purely for domestic political reasons?
The State of Iraq is a British creation and therefore is a relatively young state with an ancient civilization and culture and a long history. When the British occupied Mesopotamia [as it was then known] and evicted the colonial power - the Ottoman Turks - at the end of the First World War, their sole objective was to fashion a state that would allow them to exploit the oil riches that they knew existed beneath the sands. Having perfected the art of ‘divide and rule’ in India, the British set about to fashion just such a state in Mesopotamia as well. There are three main communities of which the most numerous are the Shiites; nearly about 60 per cent of the total. Sunnis are about 22 per cent and the Kurds about 17 per cent. The Shiites and the Sunnis are Arabs whereas the Kurds, although Sunni by denomination, are a separate ethnic group. The Shiite-Sunni divide is endemic and deep with a history going back to the martyrdom of Imam Hussein at Karbala.
The British were loathe to empower the Shiites and for very good reasons. They recognized that the Shiite fascination for death and martyrdom made them formidable enemies and that they were under the clerical influence of the Iranians mullahs. Both the British and the Ottoman Turks earlier were deeply aware of the organizational and religious links that existed between the Shiite seminaries of Iraq and Iran. These ties were most visible in the network of Ayatollahs, their representatives and organizational links. The Sunni leadership, on the other hand, astutely recognized that if they were to play a leading role and take a disproportionately larger share of the governance of Iraq, they would need an outside benefactor. This suited British policy well and into this new state were added the southern Kurds, for some of the richest oil bearing strata were in the areas inhabited by the Kurds. Thus the Sunnis emerged, with British help, as the ruling elite of the new state of Iraq and continued to do so till the Americans arrived in 2003.
Having spent at least about US$ 3 trillion, taken thousands as casualties both dead and wounded, the Americans are not going to give up that easily. The Shiite Iraqi PM Nourie al-Maliki is slated to visit the White House on December 12, 2011, just a few days before the deadline runs out. If he changes his mind and signs the status of forces agreement with the US, it will certainly not be out of character and in tune with the Iraqi political temperament. Nevertheless, the Americans are not taking any chances and have already made alternative plans.
The US Embassy in Baghdad is going to be strengthened and will have about 17,000 personnel on its rolls. Situated in the ‘Green Zone’ on a 104 acre plot with its own electricity, water and sewage, it is one of the most expensive and largest US Embassies in the world and its entire requirements are supplied from Kuwait under armed guard. US Consulates exist in Basra, Mosul and Kirkuk, each about 1,000 strong with its own security personnel. The US Embassy also has an ‘Office for Security Co-operation’ under which will come all US army trainers, private contractors and assorted military personnel—all under the cover of diplomatic immunity. Presently about $ 10 billion worth of arms deals are under negotiations. Once the negotiations are completed, additional US military personnel will arrive to train and ‘co-ordinate’ with their Iraqi counterparts. These large numbers of ‘trainers’ will also be under US Embassy cover.
Presently the Iraqi air force is non-existent. This means that the air space over Iraq will be controlled by the US for the foreseeable future. The US will continue to fly drones over Iraq targeting any potential enemy. It also means that the US can reinforce its residual troops under the ‘cover’ of the US Embassy as and when it is required without any serious hindrance. It also means that the Shiite-led Iraqi government cannot move its troops without US concurrence since they would have no air cover. And to make it absolutely certain that matters do not go out of hand, the present day Iraqi forces are commanded by a Kurdish officer General Zebari. The Americans have made an assessment and quite rightly so that of the three communities in Iraq, the Kurds will remain the most loyal. In any case the Kurdish dominated areas of Iraq are outside the political control of the Iraqi government and even the Kirkuk question remains unresolved.
Thus President Obama has very skilfully reaped the political benefits of ordering a ‘technical’ withdrawal and ending the US mission there, whilst not only retaining the substance of the US posture and presence but immeasurably strengthening it. If there is sectarian bloodletting following an American withdrawal, as it seems likely, no one can point a finger at the Americans, for technically they would have departed. And if things go really out of hand the Americans, as in the past, can always encourage the revival of the Sunni option. Thus no longer can the US be accused of ‘occupying’ an Arab country and yet at the same time with oil pipelines from Iraq fully protected the US’ ultimate prize—the oil riches of Iraq appear to be safe! President Obama’s policy of ‘leading from behind’ seems to be just about right.