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America Leaves Iraq: A Strategic Appraisal

Mahan Abedin is Visiting Fellow at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for details profile
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  • August 27, 2010

    As the latest wave of deadly bombings across Iraq vividly demonstrates, the war-torn country has a long way to go before it achieves an acceptable level of stability. In the immediate term the attacks have cast a shadow of doubt on the viability of American plans to end the combat operation phase of their engagement by the end of August and to withdraw all troops from the country by the end of next year.

    With the combat phase of American military involvement “officially” over, it is worthwhile examining the future prospects of Iraq as well as the strategic lessons learnt by the United States during its seven-year involvement in the country.

    The American military disengagement is taking place against the backdrop of a prolonged political vacuum triggered by the Iraqi parliamentary elections in March. Nearly six months after the elections, the competing political coalitions have yet to agree on the choice for Prime Minister, let alone the formation of a viable government. The impasse has worked to the advantage of the incumbent Prime Minister, Nouri Maliki, who in fact narrowly lost the election.

    The entire election process, including the run-up to the voting, was messy and convoluted. The complexity of the Iraqi political scene – as evidenced by the fact that 206 political parties and entities contested the elections – was brought into sharp relief by both the messy manner in which pre-election arrangements were managed and the post-election wrangling.

    The most significant result of the electoral process was the collapse of the main Shi’ite coalition, the “United Iraqi Alliance”, to which Prime Minister Maliki formerly belonged. Maliki subsequently formed his own group, the “State of Law” coalition, in a move widely interpreted as a calculated step away from identity politics and an attempt by Maliki to broaden his political base. In the event Maliki’s move backfired, since by splitting the Shi’ite collation, the Prime Minister revived the flagging fortunes of his main rival, former Prime Minister Iyad Allawi, who headed a predominantly Sunni coalition named the “Iraqi National Movement” or “Al-Iraqiyyah” for short. The final results put the Al-Iraqiyyah share of the vote at 24.72 per cent against the State of Law’s 24.22 per cent, a win by the narrowest of margins, which partly explains the ensuing political deadlock.

    The biggest losers of the elections were the hardcore Shi’ite parties, namely the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, the Sadr Movement and the Fadhila (Virtue) party. Following the collapse of the erstwhile powerful United Iraqi Alliance, these three groups, together with a number of smaller Shi’ite parties and entities, formed the “National Iraqi Alliance.” The Kurdistan Alliance, composed of all the main political parties in Iraqi Kurdistan and dominated by the Kurdistan Democratic Party and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, also fared badly, losing ten seats.

    A superficial reading of Iraqi politics would indicate an impressive political scene with dozens of parties vying for power in what appears to be a regulated constitutional order. But in reality Iraqi “democracy” is fragile and often a cover for the advancement of sectarian, regional and other sectional interest. Whether sectarianism becomes a key driver of politics and conflict, as it was in 2004-2007, depends to a large extent on the success or otherwise of the national reconciliation process.

    Beneath the veneer of democracy and ordinary life, Iraq is a deeply traumatised society. Three decades of war have left a profound impact on every aspect of national life, with many people contemplating revenge on those who they feel have wronged them. The memory of the vicious civil war of 2006-2007 is fresh in many people’s minds, and the possibility of a return to serious communal conflict, although remote in the short-term, cannot be ruled out altogether.

    From a strategic point of view, the biggest threat to Iraq is irrepressible centrifugal forces, exemplified by the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in the north as well as a growing “regionalisation” drive in the Shi’ite south. Following the ouster of the former Iraqi regime in 2003, the KRG has developed the trappings of a state; it has its own borders, maintains its own civil service and even issues its own visas. Absent an assertive Iraqi central government and forceful geopolitical manoeuvring by Iran and Turkey, Iraqi Kurds would likely press their advantage and opt for full independence.

    The situation in the Shi’ite south is more complex but there is a growing movement for extreme autonomy (like the one enjoyed by the Kurds), for many reasons – religious, political, socio-economic - but above all because of the tantalising prospect of control over most of Iraq’s oil reserves.

    In the short to medium term, the biggest threat to Iraqi unity is the political conflict over Kirkuk and to a lesser extent other “disputed” areas – territory that is contested by the Kurds and the central Iraqi Government – such as Mosul in the north-west. Kirkuk is by the far the biggest prize, partly because of historical legacy, but mainly due to its oil reserves. Everyone in Iraq and in the international community recognises that if the Kurds succeed in co-opting Kirkuk into the KRG, that would constitute a giant leap towards Kurdish independence.

    Hitherto, a United Nations mandated process of resolving the Kirkuk conflict has failed and it appears unlikely that the two main protagonists as well as the peripheral players (namely the Turkoman community in Kirkuk) can reach a political settlement. The contending positions are ultimately irreconcilable and the stakes are simply too high to allow for a contrived compromise, imposed either by the UN or the US. Whether this political conflict develops into a full-scale civil war, pitting the KRG against the central government in Baghdad, depends foremost on the extent to which the United States remains engaged in Iraq following its withdrawal in late 2011.

    As for the United States, the key question foremost on the mind of America’s elites and ordinary citizens alike is whether the Iraq War was worth it. The answer to this question depends on what set of expectations are set against the final results. If the initial grandiose objectives, marked by an ideal drive to bring “democracy” to Iraq and the wider region, are employed, then the war was probably not worth it. But if on the other hand the more modest expectations of the second Bush Presidency are used as the yardstick, then the answer would be more qualified.

    The US has been successful in so far as it has demonstrated resolve to finish the job. Indeed, the American withdrawal is being conducted in an elegant manner and it appears the US has put in place sufficient resources and safeguards to protect its interests after 2011.

    It is noteworthy that senior American officials have been downplaying Iranian influence in Iraq. Notably, in a speech to veterans last Monday, US Vice President Joe Biden boldly claimed that Iran’s influence in Iraq has been exaggerated. Just a couple of years ago American officials and military commanders were saying the exact opposite, presumably to justify their engagement with Iraq.

    Despite the pronouncements of senior officials in Washington, all the available evidence and the situation on the ground in Iraq indicates that Iran has been the real winner of the Iraq War. But this is not necessarily a strategic blunder for the US inasmuch as core Iranian and American interests in Iraq are not mutually exclusive. Both sides want Iraq to be a stable but weak state and crucially both sides want Iraq’s majority Shi’ite community to be in charge. From an American point of view, Iranian influence in Iraq is only problematic because of wider US-Iranian misunderstanding.

    The key question for the international community and the global public is whether the US would do it again. In other words, will the Americans engage in a large-scale pre-emptive military operation followed by years of military, civil, economic, political and diplomatic effort? The experience in Iraq has not been a happy one for the United States, in so far as the totality and configuration of American resources and doctrines are not conducive to successful nation building. But this reality will not necessarily deter the US from similar operations in the future. As long as the United States feels confident about its global geopolitical strengths vis-à-vis aspiring global powers, military interventions on the scale of Iraq cannot be ruled out.

    The author spent one year in Iraq in 2009 where he met and interviewed many of the key stakeholders.