December 26, 2011
At the moment, Iraq is a strange witches’ brew that could blow up—or, just possibly, turn into an elixir for the entire region.
As of Jan. 1, 2012, they’re gone: the U.S. soldiers who walked and drove, fought and bled, cursed, joked, cried, screamed, negotiated, interrogated, smoked, slept, ate, defecated, exercised, and did much else all across Iraq for the preceding 8 years, 9 months, and 12 days—ever since Operation Iraqi Freedom began on March 19, 2003.
The giant forward operating bases they created—mini-Americas complete with PXs as stocked as your average Walmart, chow halls and gyms as big as airplane hangars, coffee bars and fast-food restaurants straight out of your local mall, even cops with radar guns manning speed traps—all will either stand shuttered or be occupied by the Iraqis. Before long, one suspects, many of them will fade into the desert whence they rose, like a giant mirage. The passions aroused by their presence—the arguments between pro- and antiwar advocates that defined American politics as recently as 2008, when Barack Obama’s opposition to the war carried him to the Democratic nomination and then to the presidency—have already faded, replaced by a pervasive sense of numbness and exhaustion. The notoriously fickle media spotlight moved on long ago to fresh wars (Afghanistan, Libya), fresh political developments (the Arab Spring), fresh disasters (the debt crises in Italy and Greece—and America).
It’s far too soon to say definitively what U.S. troops did or did not accomplish in Mesopotamia. Were the sacrifices of more than 4,400 service members’ lives and the wounding of more than 32,000 others worthwhile? The answer will not be obvious for years to come, as the ripples of America’s presence slowly fade and Iraqi politics finds its own equilibrium—or doesn’t. The Korean War hardly looked like a success in 1953, when the guns went silent on a deadlocked peninsula. Nearly 60 years on, with South Korea having become one of the freest and most prosperous countries in the world, the outcome looks rather better. Contrariwise, as eager as some Americans may have been to claim victory in Vietnam by the time they left in 1973, Hanoi’s capture of Saigon two years later made a mockery of such boasts.
Into which category will Iraq fit? At the moment, it’s an uneasy mixture of good and bad, volatile and stable, healthy and diseased—a strange witches’ brew that could blow up or, just possibly, turn into an elixir for the entire region.
The good news is there’s been a dramatic reduction in violence. Although Iraq remains far from tranquil (political violence there killed an estimated 2,500 civilians in 2010, about as many as in Afghanistan), it is considerably more peaceful than it once was—in 2006 an estimated 34,600 civilians were killed. My own gauge is something I call the “transportation index.” When I first arrived to study the situation in the summer of 2003, I drove around with soldiers and Marines in open-top, unarmored Humvees. By 2004, with the prevalence of roadside bombs (known in American military lingo as improvised explosive devices), traveling in these vehicles had become so dangerous that they were no longer allowed off base. American personnel and their visitors moved about in jury-rigged armored Humvees, then in factory-built models of the same thing, and finally in hulking MRAPs—“mine-resistant, ambush-protected” troop carriers that resembled urban submarines. But after the successful 2007–08 surge, the process reversed itself. By 2009 I was driving around in lightly armored Suburbans like those used by American diplomats around the world, and the streets were thronged with civilian traffic—quite a change from just two years earlier, when factional fighting had turned many Iraqi neighborhoods into ghost towns.
Serious dangers remain despite the improved security situation. Al Qaeda in Iraq continues to kill people, even though the group’s obituary has been written more than once. Its specialty is suicide car bombs driven into crowds of civilians, many of them Shiites—subjects of particular loathing for these Sunni fanatics. AQI’s persistent threat has been sized up in The New York Times: “It conducts a little more than 30 attacks a week, carries out a large-scale strike every four to six weeks, and has expanded its efforts to recruit Iraqis, leading to a significant increase in the number of Iraqi-born suicide bombers.”
At the same time, Al Qaeda and other, more secular Sunni “resistance groups,” such as the Naqshbandi Army, draw energy from the heavy-handed efforts of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, leader of the Shiite-dominated Islamic Dawa Party, to extend his authority. In October he arrested 615 people, predominantly Sunnis, on charges of being Baathist coup plotters. Other purported Baathists are being fired from government jobs. Suspicions run high among Sunnis that Maliki is pursuing a sectarian agenda, as he and other Shiite politicians toss around the “Baathist” label as loosely as the term “fascist” was once used on American college campuses. In response to Baghdad’s continuing purges of alleged Baathists, the predominantly Sunni province of Salahuddin threatened to seek autonomy in protest.
And meanwhile, Shiite factions loosely affiliated with the anti-American firebrand Moqtada al-Sadr continue to threaten the Iraqi state. Sadr’s gunmen spent years battling U.S. and Iraqi security forces. After suffering major defeats in Basra and Sadr City in 2008, he retreated to Iran, where he tried to burnish his scant clerical credentials and organize his comeback, but he returned to Iraq in early 2011, confident that he (and his Iranian patrons) would exert greater influence in the wake of the anticipated U.S. troop pullout. In a television interview this past November, Sadr called the U.S. exit a “pseudo-withdrawal” because the U.S. would retain a sizable diplomatic presence. “We will not accept any American presence in Iraq—military or otherwise,” he said, vowing to “conduct resistance against them, whatever the price may be.”
Obama has gotten his wish: the departure of U.S. Forces. But be careful what you wish for.
It was not an empty threat. Sadr and his allies in the Shiite extremist groups Kataib Hizbullah and Asaib Ahl al-Haq are well equipped to conduct such “resistance,” thanks to the arsenals they’ve been given by their Iranian sponsors, ranging from rockets to “explosively formed penetrator” IEDs capable of punching through the toughest armor. The Quds Force of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards is openly trying to replicate the success of Lebanon’s Hizbullah, another Iranian client group that has become a state within a state. In late 2011, representatives of Asaib Ahl al-Haq attended a conference at a four-star hotel in Beirut with Hizbullah, Hamas, and other members of the “axis of resistance” to plot strategy against the Little Satan (Israel) and the Great Satan (the United States).
Lest we forget, there’s yet another major armed force in Iraq: the peshmerga militia, which answers not to Baghdad but to the leadership of the quasi-independent Kurdistan Regional Government. Tensions run high between the Kurds and Arabs over two major issues: the exact boundary of the ill-defined Kurdish region and the division of Iraq’s oil riches. Kurds claim sovereignty over the two major cities of northern Iraq, Mosul and Kirkuk, neither of them currently under the Kurdistan Regional Government’s formal authority. The Kurds also claim the right to sell their own oil (witness this past October’s signing of a potentially huge exploration deal with ExxonMobil), in defiance of Baghdad’s insistence on control of all natural resources. Disdain for Kurdish pretensions is practically the only thing that unites Iraq’s Sunni and Shiite Arabs, even as younger Kurds openly call for independence and refuse to learn Arabic.
Splits and stresses like these could easily tear the country apart. Nevertheless, predictions of Iraq’s demise have been premature in the past, and they could well be unfounded now. Certainly Iraq has much going for it, including a resilient and (by Middle Eastern standards) educated population, a strategic location, rich farmland, and, above all else, lots and lots of oil—the source of almost all its government revenue and hard-currency earnings. Production has increased over the past year, from 2.3 million to 2.6 million barrels a day, and Baghdad has signed development deals with many of the world’s major oil companies (not only ExxonMobil but also BP, Total, Lukoil, and Royal Dutch Shell) to bring more fields online. If all goes well, Iraq could be producing 5 million barrels a day within five years—more than Iran. The resulting riches should allow the government to rehabilitate the country’s rundown infrastructure and could set off a building boom to rival Dubai’s.
So, too, Iraq’s political situation has continued to improve, despite lots of bumps along the way. At a time when other Arab states are gingerly experimenting with democracy, Iraq already has three successful elections to its credit—in 2005 (for Parliament), 2009 (provincial leaders), and 2010 (Parliament again). None of these votes was marred by the kind of pervasive vote stealing seen in neighboring Iran.
Still, it took the Iraqis 10 months of wrangling to form a government, and there’s still no agreement on who should hold the crucial Defense and Interior portfolios. Both posts are currently filled by Prime Minister Maliki, only adding to suspicions among his numerous critics that he’s trying to amass dictatorial powers. They worry about the potential for abuse in the two ministries’ control of nearly 1 million security-force personnel. The military still has major deficiencies: Iraq has no functioning air defense (it will take years for newly purchased F-16s to arrive and become operational), and its Army is not well drilled in combined arms warfare. But Iraqi’s security forces have become proficient at counterterrorist operations—a skill that, in the wrong hands, could be used to subvert the country’s nascent democracy.
It’s happened before in other countries—see Haiti and the Dominican Republic in the 1930s—where U.S. advisers built powerful security forces and then just turned around and went home. What’s even more worrisome, those countries did not have to deal with neighbors such as Saudi Arabia and Iran meddling in their politics by backing Sunni and Shiite hardliners. I’d be a lot more confident of the outcome if America intended to keep a substantial force in Iraq for the foreseeable future. That was the ticket for success in Germany, Italy, Japan, South Korea, and more recently Bosnia and Kosovo. Such a commitment was by no means unthinkable; the Sadrists are the only political faction in Iraq that has not endorsed the U.S. presence in principle, and most Americans are not terribly exercised about a continuing troop deployment as long as it does not result in casualties.
So why did negotiations unravel in October? Supposedly, it was because of the Iraqis’ reluctance to grant legal immunity to U.S. troops, without which the Pentagon refuses to deploy its forces. But Iraqis had balked at granting immunity before, during the negotiations over the last Status of Forces Agreement in 2008. That deal got done anyway because President George W. Bush wanted it. This time, Obama failed to show similar commitment to achieving an agreement—he never called Maliki to lobby for a troop extension, and when he referred to Iraq in public it was always in the context of “ending” Bush’s war. The Iranians, meanwhile, mounted an effective behind-the-scenes campaign among Iraqis to block a U.S.-Iraq deal.
Now Obama has gotten his wish: the departure of U.S. forces. But be careful what you wish for. America’s legacy—a stable, democratic, pro-Western Iraq or an unstable, undemocratic, pro-Iranian country?—is now largely out of the president’s control. After years of struggle and sacrifice for Iraq’s future, America enters 2012 as a virtual bystander.