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Defeat in Iraq

President Obama’s decision to withdraw U.S. troops is the mother of all disasters

Nov 7, 2011, Vol. 17, No. 08 • By FREDERICK W. KAGAN, KIMBERLY KAGAN and MARISA COCHRANE SULLIVAN
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The election—Iraq’s second under the current constitution—took place on March 7. The voting was largely peaceful, with only sporadic violence meant to deter voters from heading to the polls. Turnout was high among Shiites, Sunnis, and Kurds. Many observers believed the race would be tight and come down to a contest between the two leading electoral coalitions—the State of Law list, a predominantly Shiite bloc led by Prime Minister Maliki and his Dawa party, and the Iraqiya list, a largely Sunni bloc led by former prime minister Ayad Allawi, a secular Shiite. Ultimately, Iraqiya came in first, with 91 seats, just 2 seats more than State of Law. The Iraqi National Alliance, a Shiite coalition comprising primarily the Sadrist Trend and other religious parties, came in third with 70 seats. The Kurdistani List, comprising the two main Kurdish parties, came in fourth with 57 seats. No bloc came close to winning the 163 seats needed to form a majority in the 325-member parliament. It seemed that a secular, cross-sectarian party with a significant Sunni contingent had won the privilege of trying to form a government.

The result surprised Prime Minister Maliki, who believed the election had been rigged in favor of Iraqiya. Maliki’s State of Law coalition and other Shiite parties undertook a concerted campaign to alter the election results. While many groups made claims of electoral fraud, the Iraqi Appeals Court special judicial panel ordered a manual recount of votes only in Baghdad on April 19 in response to an appeal by State of Law. This move was made even though Iraq’s electoral commission and international election monitors found little evidence to support Maliki’s claims of fraud. Again, the United States proceeded as though the recount were strictly an Iraqi issue and the courts were operating in their proper, independent role rather than as servants of a political master, which was the reality.

One week after ordering a recount, the same special judicial panel upheld the AJC’s ruling to disqualify several winning candidates on account of their alleged ties to the Baath party. This included several winners from Iraqiya. When asked about the politicization of the judiciary in the de-Baathification process, U.S. ambassador Christopher Hill said, “I would see this as a close election that has caused great strain and great challenges to all of Iraq’s nascent democratic institutions, and I would say the court system has not been immune to this challenge.” But Hill did not repudiate the decision to ban the candidates.

In addition to the Baghdad recount and de-Baathification efforts, the Shiite blocs sought other means to alter the outcome of the vote, including a move to redefine Article 76 of the Iraqi constitution, which stipulates that the “largest bloc” has the first chance to select a prime minister and form a governing coalition. On March 25, the day before the final results were announced, Iraq’s Federal Supreme Court issued the opinion that Article 76 could mean a coalition formed either before or after the election, giving a second chance to the Shiite blocs. In early May, the two main Shiite groups—Maliki’s State of Law and the Iraqi National Alliance—announced the formation of a bloc later named the National Alliance. This move was widely seen as politically influenced, but allowed the National Alliance, with its 159 seats (just 4 shy of a majority), to be the largest bloc. Maliki had been laying the groundwork for such a ruling since the summer of 2009, as it became evident that he would not succeed in forming an alliance before the election. U.S. officials maintained a posture of noninterference and insisted they favored no bloc, but their unwillingness to resist Maliki and other Shiite parties’ blatant manipulation of the political process through the courts was, in effect, an endorsement of Maliki—and was seen as such by many Iraqis, including some with whom we spoke at the time.

What did concern the Obama administration was the speedy formation of a government so that the drawdown to 50,000 troops and the cessation of combat operations could be achieved on schedule, by August 31, 2010. But as the process dragged on into the early summer, and as the number of U.S. troops fell by a combat brigade a month, administration officials decided that Maliki was the only candidate who could form a government. They also believed that the fastest way to achieve this was by facilitating an alliance between Maliki and Allawi in a “national partnership government.” In an effort to appease Allawi and ensure Iraqiya’s participation, U.S. officials pressed for the creation of a National Council for Higher Policies, which Allawi would head. This council, however, had no grounding in the constitution, and any effort to invest it with executive authority would have required a constitutional amendment, a virtually impossible move. Furthermore, the notion of a Maliki-Allawi alliance was at odds with political reality, as the two men were bitter rivals. U.S. support for Maliki also undercut attempts to find creative and viable alternatives to his remaining prime minister.

If U.S. efforts to broker a Maliki-Allawi partnership that summer were ineffective, the Iranians, by contrast, intervened decisively. In late September, Iran convinced Syrian president Bashar al-Assad to drop his support for Allawi in favor of Maliki. At the same time, the Iranians convinced Shiite populist Moktada al-Sadr to back Maliki, in exchange for concessions including extra ministerial positions for the Sadrist Trend. Sadr’s support was instrumental in shifting momentum in Maliki’s favor. Other parties, sensing that Maliki would emerge the victor and wanting to share in the spoils of government, soon lined up behind the prime minister.

Yet the question remained how to incorporate Allawi and Iraqiya into the government. U.S. officials, including Vice President Biden and even President Obama, tried several times to ask the Kurds to cede the presidency and make way for Allawi. The Kurds, offended, rebuffed them. Ultimately, Kurdistan Regional Government president Massoud Barzani gathered representatives from the main blocs together in Erbil and Baghdad and brokered a compromise that became known as the Erbil Agreement, whereby Maliki would retain the premiership, Allawi would chair the NCHP, and the Kurds would retain the presidency. This paved the way for the seating of the government in December 2010.

There has been little political progress in the 10 months since. The deep division within the large ruling coalition has made it all but impossible to reach consensus on key issues, such as selecting ministers of defense or the interior. Prime Minister Maliki took advantage of the deadlock to make himself acting head of both ministries and thus exercise de facto control over the entire security apparatus, without ministerial accountability or parliamentary oversight. The government is bloated and ineffective, as dozens of new ministries and positions were created in an effort to include all the major parties in the governing coalition. Maliki has used this period to consolidate control over the security and intelligence ministries. He has also successfully kept Iraqiya (especially Allawi’s faction) from assuming the power it earned at the polls or even from serving as a check on his own power.

Ambivalent—
or incompetent—negotiations

The character of the Iraqi government complicated the negotiations to extend the U.S. military presence in Iraq. Most blocs privately favored keeping U.S. forces in Iraq for training. Yet it was difficult for any politician or party to champion an agreement publicly for fear of attacks from rival groups. Maliki made clear that he would not move on the issue without the support of a large majority of other political groups. Iraqiya, meanwhile, sought to use the issue to extract concessions from Maliki on the NCHP and the naming of the minister of defense.

The U.S. position on the troop extension was also problematic. U.S. officials insisted that negotiations could not begin until the Iraqis formally asked the United States to stay. But this is not how most such negotiations unfold. Normally, private discussions precede any formal request. The insistence that the Iraqis ask first and talk later remained the common refrain of senior U.S. officials such as Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta, who during his July 2011 visit told the Iraqis, “Dammit, make a decision.” This hurt more than it helped.

During his visit, Panetta also pressed Maliki to name a minister of defense. The administration feared that without a minister, the negotiations over U.S. troops could not begin. But in reality, the decision on U.S. troops was always going to be taken up by Iraq’s political leaders. By focusing on the side issue of naming a defense minister, U.S. policymakers lost precious time that could have been spent building confidence and consensus amongst Iraq’s various political actors in favor of an extended U.S. presence.

The Obama administration made the negotiations even more difficult by choosing the most difficult path to securing immunities for U.S. troops. No one doubted the need to secure immunities, but according to a recent McClatchy article citing diplomats in Baghdad, when State Department lawyers presented the president with options for doing so, “Obama chose the most stringent, approval by Iraq’s legislature of a new agreement, citing as precedent that the Iraqi parliament had approved the 2008 agreement.” Requiring parliamentary approval set the bar far higher than Iraqis saw as realistic or achievable. It also may have been unnecessary, given the variety of status of forces agreements the United States has negotiated with other countries without parliamentary approval. Senior Iraqis, including Maliki himself, countered that a memorandum of understanding granting immunity was all that was required for a continued training mission.

The result of these complications was that serious negotiations to extend the security agreement did not begin in earnest until August 2011, a year after the drawdown to 50,000 troops and just months before the December 31 withdrawal deadline. By this time, many Iraqis had grown skeptical of the U.S. commitment to a partnership with Iraq. The fact that President Obama was not involved in the process gave politicians further reason to doubt U.S. intentions, as did leaks that the United States would keep only 3,000-5,000 troops in Iraq, far short of the 15,000-20,000 that the U.S. command in Iraq had requested. Iraqi politicians who might otherwise have resisted Iranian entreaties and threats no longer felt confident that the United States had the willingness or capability to balance Iran. For those seeking to scuttle the agreement, the immunities issue proved the easiest means of doing so. When Iraqi politicians said in mid-October that U.S. forces would be granted no immunities at all, the talks ceased.

The Shiite reaction—

purges and militancy

Iraqi leaders have been remarkably quick to adjust to the reality of American abandonment, and their reactions show that they really had considered the American presence a meaningful check on sectarianism and the consolidation of a vengeful, authoritarian Shiite government.

Maliki has been working seriously to transform his Dawa party into a Shiite version of the Baath party since late 2009. He has been steadily replacing key officials with loyalists throughout the government, but particularly in security-related ministries like the intelligence services and the army. We have long had reports that Maliki was establishing a de facto requirement of Dawa party membership for those who would hold certain key positions. He supported the efforts of the AJC to remove from office even individuals explicitly protected by the Iraqi constitution because their past membership in the Baath party was either coerced or at low rank. The failure to complete the government, with the defense and interior ministries effectively in Maliki’s hands, greatly facilitated these efforts.

Within days of President Obama’s announcement of the U.S. withdrawal on October 21, political firings and arrests picked up, now amounting to a full-scale purge. Iraqi police sources report that roughly 200 people from provinces including Kirkuk, Diyala, Babel, Salahadin, and Basra have been arrested since October 24, all on charges of affiliation with the Baath party under Saddam and vague accusations of plotting to conduct terrorism within Iraq. It is clear from this reporting that many of those arrested had not held rank in the Baath party high enough to permit their legal arrest for that reason alone.

Even before Obama’s announcement, the purge had reached the higher echelons of the Iraqi Army, with the forcing out of 14th Infantry Division commander General Abdul Aziz Noor Swady al Dalmy and Vice Chief of Staff of the Iraqi Joint Command Nasir Abadi. The removal of these two generals is particularly worrisome, not merely because it expresses Shiite vengefulness, but also because the two epitomized the Iraqi uniformed leadership that sought close relations with the United States and resisted Shiite militias. General Aziz has held Basra tenaciously against Iranian proxy militias since the city was cleared in early 2008. General Nasir has been a pro-American, secular, nonsectarian, and highly competent leader. These professionals posed little or no military or political threat to Maliki himself, but they did strongly oppose any turn by Baghdad toward Tehran.

The most recent purge in Saddam’s home province of Salahadin has already sparked local resistance. On October 26 the Salahadin Provincial Council refused to hand over a number of detained former army officers and former Baath party members and subsequently voted to declare the province an autonomous administrative and economic region. These events are the culmination of a two-year contest between the Salahadin Provincial Council and Baghdad over changes to local security and government offices.

The purge, moreover, has not been confined to the security ministries. More than 100 faculty members and employees at Tikrit and Mosul universities have been fired. This comes after reports since June that Maliki’s right-hand man, Ali al Adeeb, was conducting a mandatory survey as part of the “de-Baathification” process. Al Adeeb recently accused the former minister of higher education, Abd Dhiyab al Ajeely (a Sunni), of taking orders from Baathists.

Maliki is now arresting Iraqis simply for having been Baath party members under Saddam. This is exactly the kind of bid for exclusive Shiite control over the government that Iraq’s Sunni Arabs have long feared would come when the United States left. Both Maliki’s actions and the nascent resistance to them in Salahadin and elsewhere dramatically increase the likelihood of a return to sectarian civil war in Iraq.

Iran triumphant

Iranians and their allies have hastened to take credit for their victory over the United States. Much of the official Iranian reaction thus far has been somewhat cautious and focused on warning that the United States no doubt sought continued involvement in Iraq to Iran’s detriment. Some Iranian senior military leaders have been more direct. The chairman of Iran’s Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Hassan Firouzabadi, for example, said that “American soldiers had no other choice than to leave Iraq, and this is the beginning of all American forces withdrawing from the region.” A statement by the Basij militia, which played a central role in suppressing the protests in Iran following the 2009 presidential election, said that “the United States has no way out but to retreat from the region as the Middle East has become an exhibition of its failures.” It spoke of a “Great Islamic Middle East” in which all “Muslim and freedom-seeking nations” would cooperate with Iran “to distance themselves from bankrupt powers.” An Iranian foreign ministry spokesman attributed the pullout of U.S. military forces to the “resistance put up by the Iraqi people, government, and clerics. .  .  . If the United States had been capable of maintaining its military presence in several parts of the world, U.S. officials would not have made such a decision.”

The Iranians’ repeated references to “resistance” are direct evocations of the Lebanese Hezbollah, which is always defined as a resistance force against Israeli aggression. Hezbollah was the model on which Sadr’s organizations were based, with help from Lebanese Hezbollah leaders and fighters who had traveled to Iraq. Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah told Iran’s Press TV that the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq is a “historic defeat for the United States.” He told the interviewer that “Iraqis owe this remarkable achievement to the resistance groups,” adding that “U.S. troops would have stayed in the country if they had felt secure.” And he likened the U.S. withdrawal to the withdrawal of Israeli forces from southern Lebanon.

Further evidence of the Iranian victory over the United States is the fact that Kurdish leader Massoud Barzani went to Tehran a week after Obama’s announcement for only the second time in his presidency of the Kurdish Region. Barzani has historically been the Kurdish leader most staunchly opposed to Iran and inclined toward maintaining a strong partnership with the United States.

Sadr’s reaction, on the other hand, indicates that he (and his Iranian handlers, no doubt) see this withdrawal as an opportunity to push even harder against any American presence in the region. As late as October 20, Sadr declared that a continued U.S. presence in Iraq of some sort might be acceptable under certain conditions. Three days later, and two days after Obama’s speech, he said that even a significant American diplomatic presence would be an occupation. He called on his followers to continue their armed fight against American civilians in Iraq after the end of this year.

And there is another reason Sadr is now able to act with renewed confidence in his own position within the Iraqi political and religious order. Seventy-two hours after Obama’s speech, the Iraqi Supreme Judicial Court issued a remarkable announcement. The court not only dismissed charges against Sadr for his involvement in the 2003 murder of Ayatollah Khoei, an act for which Sadr was directly responsible. It actually asserted that there had never been any such charges, which is not true. 

Ayatollah Khoei had been one of the most obvious candidates to succeed the aged Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, who heads the Shiite religious establishment in Najaf. Like Sistani and the other Najafi Shiite clerics, Ayatollah Khoei preached a vision of Shiite Islam at odds with the theocratic doctrine developed by Ayatollah Khomeini that serves as the religious basis for the Islamic Republic of Iran today. The Iraqi clerics’ vision is characterized by the belief that, although the state must be run in accord with Islamic law, clerics themselves should play no direct role in government or politics—a view that is flatly at odds with the clerical dictatorship in Iran and that Iranian leaders have long seen as a threat to the principles on which their regime was founded.

The charges against Sadr, combined with his poor religious credentials, had hitherto made the prospect of inserting him into the Najafi clerical establishment, let alone having him succeed Sistani in some way, almost laughable to Iraqis. The official evaporation of the charges, combined with the clear ascendancy of Iran, make such a prospect very likely. If and when that happens, the last bastion of Shiism in the Middle East that rejects the Khomeini model of theocracy and champions a degree of separation between church and state will have fallen.

The price of failure

America will pay a high price for defeat in Iraq. Our global credibility is seriously damaged—it is surely no accident that the weekend after President Obama announced that we were abandoning Iraq, President Hamid Karzai said that Afghanistan would stand with Pakistan against a U.S. attack. Why not? The Iranian and Pakistani narratives all along have been that the Americans will ultimately abandon their allies to their fate, while the neighbors will be around to exact revenge. President Obama has just reinforced that narrative before all the world.

The United States will also pay a high moral price for this retreat. Tens of thousands of Iraqis sacrificed and put themselves and their families in enormous danger relying on the backing of the United States against our mutual enemies—al Qaeda and Iranian militias. The Maliki government, perhaps partially at the behest of the Quds Force, is now beginning to eliminate some of those people, and the trickle of blood and refugees will likely become a river. Yet another group of brave people who share America’s core values and risked their lives to fight with us will conclude bitterly that Americans can never be trusted.

Iran will be strengthened in the region, and Iraq’s traditional tensions with its Arab neighbors will suit Tehran’s policies. The United States has worked tirelessly to maintain decent relations between Iraq and Kuwait, and to mediate between Baghdad and Riyadh. Iran has no similar interests, and will likely encourage Baghdad to pursue its territorial and financial disputes with Kuwait (not through direct armed conflict, of course) and to distance Iraq from Saudi Arabia. In place of a coalition of Arab states resisting Iranian expansion, we can expect the emergence of an Iran-Iraq-Syria axis as a counterweight and deterrent to any such coalition. If the Syrian regime should fall, Iraq could be a valuable replacement, but also a point of leverage for continued Iranian involvement in Syria and the Levant. 

Above all, the war is not over even when that last American soldier leaves Iraq. Sadr’s troops with Iranian support will continue to attack and probably kill our embassy personnel. Iran and its allies—now bolstered by militias and political groups that can function without hindrance in Iraq—will continue their explicit efforts to expel the United States from the Middle East entirely. Iran will gain free access to the world’s trade through Iraq’s cities, highways, ports, and banks, circumventing any sanctions the United States might painfully push through the U.N. Security Council. And the Shiite world will lose its leading advocate for a vision of Islam that is more compatible with Western ideals—and with the views of the overwhelming majority of Iraqi Shiites.

The return of an al Qaeda franchise to Iraq, finally, is all but certain. Al Qaeda in Iraq—which even today the Obama administration is loath to recognize as part of the al Qaeda movement despite irrefutable evidence to the contrary—has been trying to reestablish itself in the wake of the U.S. drawdown of surge troops since 2009, with limited success. The American retreat and the reemergence of sectarian conflict in Iraq will create fruitful ground for such a reestablishment. U.S. Special Forces and drones, now denied formal bases in Iraq, will be hard-pressed to develop the intelligence necessary to continue to degrade that organization, nor is it clear that they will be allowed to act as they see fit. Tehran is working to establish a U.S.-free Iraq, and will pressure Iraqis to resist American violations of their sovereignty, fearing Iraqi-American military partnership at any level. The likelihood is that al Qaeda will regain some sort of safe haven in Iraq, and the main pressure it will face will be renewed Shiite sectarian cleansing operations that will exacerbate internal conflict and regional tensions but will not eliminate al Qaeda itself.

Now that President Obama has perfected so many of the analogies between Vietnam and Iraq, we may well come to wish that Iraq, like Vietnam, were ultimately a sideshow. But Iraq is much more vital to our national security than Vietnam ever was. The United States will have to bear the burden of this defeat and its disastrous consequences for a long time to come.

Frederick W. Kagan is director of the Critical Threats Project at the American Enterprise Institute. Kimberly Kagan is president of the Institute for the Study of War, where Marisa Cochrane Sullivan is deputy director.

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