An Iraqi policeman guards bomb site in Kirkuk, Iraq on September 9, 2012 (Reuters)

October 15, 2012

Losing Iraq

Originally published in National Review

President Obama announced the “end of America’s war in Iraq” on December 14, 2011, with the words, “We’re leaving behind a sovereign, stable, and self-reliant Iraq, with a representative government that was elected by its people. We’re building a new partnership between our nations.” These were the conditions that he felt allowed him to describe the completion of America’s military withdrawal as a “moment of success.” Nine months later, Iraq does not seem like a success, even in these extremely limited terms. It is neither sovereign nor stable nor self-reliant. Its government does not reflect the will of its people; Sunni officials have been marginalized and, in some cases, driven out of office. And it is not a partner of the United States on any of the key issues in the region: From its evasion of economic sanctions on Iran to its support for the Syrian regime of Bashar Assad, Iraq stands in Tehran’s camp, not Washington’s. The reality is that the United States has not achieved its national-security objectives in Iraq and is not likely to do so.

When President Obama took office, the U.S. had 144,000 servicemen and -women in Iraq. They were training and supporting Iraqi security forces fighting both al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) and Iranian-backed Shiite terrorist groups. Today, around 150 American military personnel remain in Iraq. They are not training Iraqis or operating with them. The U.S. has withdrawn its military forces — keeping the president’s campaign promise, as the White House constantly reiterates. But what kind of Iraq have we left behind?

Is Iraq an effective ally in the struggle against regional terrorist groups? Counterterrorism cooperation with the U.S. against al-Qaeda in Iraq has fallen off dramatically, while AQI’s ability to conduct spectacular terrorist attacks within Iraq has been growing since the departure of American troops. Operations against Shiite militias have virtually ceased. Sectarian violence is rising in all of the traditional hotspots in and around Baghdad.

Does Iraq have a stable government that represents its people? Maliki’s government does not reflect the outcome of the 2010 parliamentary elections, in which his party did not win a plurality. Neither does it reflect the efforts of the U.S. administration to broker a “unity government” that would have been more inclusive — efforts that failed dramatically, as Michael Gordon describes in his forthcoming history of the period, The Endgame. Iraqi political accommodations have broken down since Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki used security forces to try to seize Sunni vice president Tariq al-Hashemi as the last American troops began their departure. Maliki had Hashemi tried in absentia after he fled the country, and an Iraqi court recently sentenced him to death by hanging.

Is Iraq a partner of the U.S. on key regional issues? Iraq refuses to enforce international economic sanctions on Iran, serving instead as an entrepôt for prohibited Iranian commerce. Baghdad has also refused to support the position of the U.S., Britain, France, the United Nations, and almost all of its Arab neighbors in opposing the Assad regime in Damascus. On the contrary, Iran is using Iraqi airspace and ground lines of communication to send military supplies and trainers to support Assad. Maliki has also vocally supported the Iranian-backed revolutionaries in Bahrain — a key American ally.

Far from being a success, then, American policy in Iraq has created an extraordinarily dangerous situation over which we have almost no influence.

Violence is slowly rising again in Iraq. Measuring it precisely has always been difficult, and the end of intelligence-collection and -reporting by American military forces makes the task even harder. Nevertheless, two independent open-source databases show a significant increase in Iraqi-on-Iraqi violence since the departure of American forces in December 2011. Data from the Iraq Body Count website puts the number of average monthly security incidents from January through July (the last full month for which data are posted) at 369, compared with 328 for the same period in 2011 — an increase of 12.5 percent. And Olive Group, a private security firm that publishes detailed statistics of weekly violence in Iraq, reports that there were more than 120 security incidents per week for eight of 14 weeks from mid-June to the beginning of September. Incidents had exceeded 120 per week only three times in the previous 25 weeks (from December 2011 to mid-June 2012). Olive Group notes, “This elevated figure would appear to indicate that the basic security level in Iraq is not normalising following the Ramadan campaign [conducted by al-Qaeda in Iraq from mid-July to mid-August], but rather violence is being sustained at above average levels.”

These violence levels are very low compared with those of 2006–07, when monthly averages were in the thousands. But the uptick is alarming, and, as always in Iraq, the raw count does not tell the whole story. The scope, scale, and frequency of mass-casualty attacks conducted by AQI’s front organization, the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI), has increased notably in the past few months, according to a report recently released by Sam Wyer at the Institute for the Study of War. Wyer found that ISI attacks killed at least 115 people in 20 cities in Iraq on July 23. A second wave of attacks, on August 16, killed more than 100 people in 19 cities. A third wave hit 18 cities on September 9, again killing more than 100. The amount of time it takes a terrorist group to recover from one set of mass-casualty attacks and prepare and launch another is an important measure of its capability, effectiveness, and resources. The attacks in July, August, and September were roughly 24 days apart, compared with 37 days between previous attack waves in 2012. This pattern strongly suggests that ISI’s capabilities have increased since the departure of American troops and despite efforts by the Iraqi security forces to keep the peace. The September 9 attack was particularly alarming because AQI/ISI penetrated deep into the southern Shiite heartland, hitting the cities of Nasiriyah, Amarah, and Basra, far beyond the area in which it has normally been able to operate. Since the targeted region supports Shiite militia groups, the attack increases the risk that reprisal violence will renew sectarian conflict. The attack included a car bombing in the al-Qibla area of Basra, a stronghold of Moqtada al-Sadr and his followers. Sadr’s Jaish al-Mahdi militia has not yet remobilized, but it could well do so if AQI/ISI attacks continue.

Those who have argued that Arab Iraqis will naturally resist Iranian pressure even without meaningful American assistance may prove right in the long term, but Iraqi political elites today are supporting Tehran’s regional objectives in the most important issues of the moment. Iraq is becoming one of the most significant venues in which Iran circumvents the international sanctions intended to persuade its leaders to abandon their illegal nuclear program.

Advocates of extending the U.S. military presence in Iraq cited Iraq’s inability to guard the sovereignty of its airspace in support of their position — presciently, it turns out. Iraq’s skies are a critical lifeline for the vicious regime of Bashar Assad, to whom the Iranian military is flying supplies, weapons, and advisers as he kills thousands of his own people in a desperate attempt to retain control of Syria. Iraq does not have air-defense systems. It does not have air-to-air fighters. Iranian aircraft that wish to pass through Iraqi airspace have only to do so, and the most Baghdad can do is lodge a protest. For the most part, Maliki has refused even to do that. Had the U.S. succeeded in negotiating a long-term military relationship with Iraq, Tehran would have found these overflights much more complicated. De facto American control of Iraq’s airspace would have given Maliki an easy excuse to refuse Iranian requests to enter it — and might well have deterred Tehran from making such requests.

Iranian influence within Iraq has also grown and continues to threaten American interests. The U.S. handed over the last of its detainees in Iraq to Maliki’s government at the end of 2011, including two important Iranian proxies — Qais al-Khazali and Ali Mussa Daqduq. Khazali, formerly a disciple of Moqtada al-Sadr, heads Asaib Ahl al-Haq (AAH), which means “the League of the Righteous.” It is one of the most lethal Shiite militias. Daqduq, a senior member of Lebanese Hezbollah, went to Iraq to arm, train, and equip AAH and other militant Iranian proxies. Both were captured in an early-2007 U.S. raid after they led an attack on U.S. personnel in Karbala that ended with the execution of five American soldiers. Since his release, Khazali has brought AAH formally into the Iraqi political process without disbanding his militia as required by Iraqi law. Uniformed AAH members paraded in front of Khazali at the ceremonies for the opening of AAH political offices in Baghdad this summer. The Iraqis continue to hold Daqduq for the moment, but an Iraqi court dismissed the criminal charges against him in July and refused an American request to extradite him in August.

The resurrection of al-Qaeda in Iraq is a consequence of America’s failure to negotiate a long-term military partnership of the kind that was envisioned when the Strategic Partnership Agreement was signed in 2008. U.S. enablers — combat troops in small numbers combined with the precision-strike capabilities of American aircraft and special forces — could have continued, in cooperation with Iraqi security forces, to keep the pressure on AQI. Their presence would also have sustained pressure on Maliki to keep Shiite militias in check.

Instead, the Iraqi political accommodation began to collapse as soon as American military forces departed. Maliki ordered Iraqi security forces to surround Hashemi’s compound on December 15 — the day that the Pentagon declared an official end to its mission. Maliki could not have done this had American trainers and advisers remained in Baghdad. Fears of a Sunni coup or a Shiite dictatorship could have been mitigated by the continued presence of American military forces, which all sides saw as impartial.

The Obama administration claims that it had no alternatives — that Maliki and the Iraqi leaders simply would not do what was necessary to allow U.S. forces to remain. Michael Gordon paints a different picture in a recent New York Times article excerpted from The Endgame. As he explains it, the Obama administration did not begin negotiations for the extension of a military presence until June 2011, despite the well-known challenges of securing rapid deals in Iraq. The administration claims that it could not start negotiations before then because the Iraqi government had not yet been formed. But Gordon demonstrates how much the delay in the formation of that government resulted from the total failure of the Obama administration’s efforts to broker a political deal in Baghdad.

When the negotiations did start, they were premised on an unrealistic demand communicated by President Obama to Prime Minister Maliki. Obama wanted the Iraqi parliament to ratify whatever agreement was reached, despite the fact that Maliki had requested an executive agreement that would not be subject to legislative approval, and the lead U.S. negotiator, Brett McGurk, had recommended taking this approach. Maliki offered an executive agreement several times, Gordon notes, but the Obama administration stuck to its original demand. President Obama did not exert himself to smooth the negotiations, confining his communications with Maliki to the initial conversation in June and a discussion in October during which the U.S. president told his Iraqi counterpart that the negotiations were over and U.S. forces were leaving.

This failure may have resulted from a lack of desire on the part of the Obama administration to keep sufficient troops in Iraq, from its inability to make a deal, from its unreasonable demands, from Iraqi intransigence, or from all of the above. From a strategic and national-security standpoint, the only thing that matters is that by failing to secure a new agreement, the U.S. failed profoundly to secure its hard-won gains. Even more important, it failed to secure its interests.

It is most important of all to recognize the price of that failure. Iraq has become a major strategic vulnerability for the United States. It is an outlet for Iranian goods skirting sanctions. It is a launching pad for Iranian-backed terrorist groups looking for “plausible deniability.” It is a critical line of communication between Tehran and its once-solid proxy in Damascus. It is again becoming a safe haven for one of the most lethal and determined al-Qaeda franchises in the world. That franchise, in fact, is now projecting terrorist operations into Syria in a way it was never before able to do. And Iraq is in danger once again of becoming a failed state.

There are no easy solutions to these problems at this point. We cannot go back in time and undo any of the mistakes that the current president or his predecessor made. We cannot return the situation to what it was on January 20, 2009, or December 15, 2011, and start over from there. We are not going to redeploy American military forces into Iraq. We must recognize the situation as it is and develop a new strategy for achieving vital American goals despite the challenges.

In particular, it is essential for the U.S. to prevent al-Qaeda in Iraq from establishing a firm base from which to conduct and support terrorist activities throughout the region. It is equally important to prevent Iran from using Iraq as a staging area from which its militias can attack American interests and those of our regional allies. It is impossible to develop a strategy to contain Iran if Iraq is committed to a policy of supporting Tehran. And Iraq bestrides the Sunni–Shiite sectarian fault line in the Middle East that the civil war in Syria is inflaming once again. Maliki’s Iraq today drives increasing sectarianism within its borders and beyond them.

It is far from clear how to develop a new strategy to meet these challenges, but any attempt must begin with the recognition of the realities in Iraq and the region as they are, rather than as we wish them to be.