Iraq’s Long War Refusing To End

The time for a reformulation of US policy in Iraq is long overdue. (Photo:

By James Gundun – Washington

In the tragic moments after the bombing of Boston’s marathon, few hours elapsed before thoughtlessness infiltrated a global media reaction. Among the unreasonable claims made online: something to the effect that Boston, for a day, felt like Baghdad. Except Boston is no Baghdad. This hyperbole was lobbed into America’s media precisely because Baghdad had just experienced a string of devastating explosions, to be followed by eight more on the day of Boston’s bombing. The following weeks witnessed hundreds of casualties as April recorded the highest monthly total in 5 years, according to the United Nations, and Iraq Body Count estimated over 850 fatalities in a horrific May.

As George Bush’s “WMD’s” and “Mission Accomplished” banner mark the war’s first and second great lies, President Barack Obama’s claim that “Iraq’s war is over” completes the trifecta.

Although US combat missions have reached a formal end under the Obama administration’s watch, the foreign component of Iraq’s insurgency remains as alive and multi-headed as the causes of this disastrous trend. In terms of US policy, assigning responsibility for Iraq’s ongoing breakdown of diplomacy and security extends back to the war’s errant beginning. While the current period of instability was easy to predict – al-Qaeda’s network announced its intention to go underground, reorganize and emerge once the last US troops withdrew in December 2011 – America as a whole lacked the credibility to stay when the Obama administration needed to rework a Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) with the Iraqi government. Such a task began from an impossible position given that Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki lacked the votes to pass an extension through parliament, where the accumulation of Iraq’s outrages and public resentment of occupation weighed heavily on Iraq’s representatives. They could not afford to pass certain requirements, such as immunity for US soldiers and private contractors, and Washington’s SOFA expired without a vote.

Republicans pounced on the Obama administration’s inability to work a last-minute deal, ignoring the political controversy in parliament and the military backlash of forcing an extension upon Baghdad’s streets. Instead they concentrated their arguments on extending the presence of US troops and fronting Iran’s western border, seemingly welcoming the costs of perpetual warfare.

“If we’re not smart enough to work with the Iraqis, to have 10-15,000 American troops in Iraq in 2012, Iraq could go to hell,” Republican Senator Lindsey Graham predicted in April 2011, albeit for the wrong reasons. “This is a defining moment in the future of Iraq. And the Obama administration has the wrong strategy in Libya, and in my view they’re going down the wrong road when it comes to Iraq.”

The GOP, in the end, differed from the White House’s policy in superficial ways – neither party held a political plan of attack for the future of Iraq’s long war. Not long after Obama’s election, Iraqi officials began accusing his administration of checking out while preparing Afghanistan’s surge, and the events collaborate this drop in priority and focus. Under full knowledge that Iraq’s Sunni and Shia insurgents were headed underground until the exit date, Obama’s administration withdrew politically as the US military redeployed – but only after involving itself in 2010’s disputed election to keep the Prime Ministry in al-Maliki’s hands. The ensuing Erbil Agreement, which allocated power between al-Maliki and Iraqiya chief Ayad Allawi, cracked repeatedly until December 2012, when the arrest of Finance Minister Rafi al-Essawi’s bodyguards (a vocal ally of Allawi and reoccurring target of al-Maliki) finally ignited a national protest of Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds.

“When we went to Erbil to sign the US-sponsored agreement to form a government led by Maliki, we worked on achieving a true partnership in managing the country,” Allawi explained in May. “Maliki, Massoud Barzani and I signed a document that includes pledges to bring about this partnership; the US ambassador in Iraq was a witness on that. Once we got to parliament to bring this document into reality, the partners turned against us.”

In the meantime al-Maliki has done what he does best: concentrate power in himself by illegally holding the Interior and Defense Ministries, manipulating the judicial system and media against political opponents, and excluding Sunnis, Shias and Kurds alike from greater political representation. As his governing style foreshadowed, the Premier has closed off the routes to cooperation and opted to resist his enemies rather than forfeit any degree of his powers. A cabinet boycott by Iraqiya and a no-confidence vote organized by Allawi, Kurdish President Massoud Barzani and Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr were confidently faced down in 2012. Now, instead of sincerely engaging a unified opposition, al-Maliki has intensified hostilities by slandering them together with Baathists and “foreign extremists.” Speaking after the operating licenses of Al-Jazeera and other satellite news channels were revoked in late April, the Prime Minister announced, “Sectarianism is evil, and the wind of sectarianism does not need a license to cross from a country to another, because if it begins in a place, it will move to another place.”

“Al-Maliki told us that he has to listen to and contain demonstrators,” Allawi told Al-Monitor, “but instead he described them as terrorists and Baathists, and he even attacked the demonstration squares with arms.”

With minimal domestic incentive to reengage Iraq, the Obama administration has taken a back seat to all of these developments, calling on Vice President Joe Biden, Ambassador Robert Beecroft, Iraqi President Jalal Talabani, and Turkish diplomats to cool off al-Maliki behind the scenes. Unfortunately their private actions have reinforced the notion that Washington remains locked behind the Prime Minister, or else is too afraid to publicly challenge him and assume partial responsibly for the fallout. From the start of his 2008 campaign, Obama has taken measures to highlight his personal opinions of Iraq’s war without casting too much light on the war itself. He flipped his opposition to Iraq’s “bad war” as a means of selling a “good war” in Afghanistan, when both conflicts are strategically misguided. He then organized and advertised an exit strategy in Iraq without offering a comprehensive political strategy to replace America’s military mass.

At first Obama would technically end US military involvement in Iraq, but his rhetoric soon mutated under the pressures of re-election into a naked lie. As thousands of Iraqis were killed and thousands more wounded by attacks across the country, “I promised to end the war in Iraq and we did” became the first foreign policy leg (followed by Osama bin Laden’s death and Afghanistan’s “progress”) of Obama’s second campaign.

Stuart Brown, America’s special inspector general in Iraq, called September 2012 “the bloodiest month since 2010.”

Al-Maliki’s opponents have repeatedly countered the US version of reality in Iraq. Soon after Obama’s ill-advised welcome of al-Maliki to the White House in December 2011, where he praised “the elected leader of a sovereign, self-reliant and democratic Iraq,” Allawi told CNN’s Fareed Zakaria that Iraq is none of the above. Vice President Saleh al-Mutlaq provoked al-Maliki’s ire by flatly calling him a dictator. Barzani also voiced concerns that the Obama administration had lost control of its policy when he arrived at the White House in April 2012, saying that the Iraqi people still need to “see that the United States will not allow and will not support another dictatorship in Iraq.”

Far from over, Iraq’s war is more accurately defined by two disturbing words: asymmetric and long. Without political and economical development, it becomes possible for a relatively small group of insurgent-terrorists to wage indefinite warfare against a disorganized, under-resourced and unpopular government. 5-10 years of additional warfare may be a conservative estimate with al-Qaeda now tapped into Syria’s arms network. The US surge of 2007 only provided temporary fixes to the same non-military problems that, left unresolved, are fueling al-Qaeda’s underground appeal and attracting foreign jihadists. US officials indirectly admit to this reality by directly connecting Syria’s dots back to Iraq.

As is often the case in Obama’s foreign policy, his administration has attempted to stake ground on both sides of the political equation: taking credit for ending Iraq’s war while attributing a portion of Washington’s caution in Syria to the influence of al-Qaeda’s network in Iraq.

This destabilizing factor comes on top of the Iranian transports that reportedly ferry weapons into Syria via Iraq’s airspace. European governments have separately accused al-Maliki’s government of turning a blind eye to Sunni and Shia recruitment alike.

The time for a reformulation of US policy in Iraq is long overdue. To help decrease sectarian tensions between the populace and government, the Obama administration must adopt a neutral and proactive stance that favors all of Iraq’s actors equally. This policy entails a risky but necessary confrontation with al-Maliki in public, if he continues to resist the Erbil Agreement’s implementation, and raising Iraq back into view in America. Al-Maliki functions as the common denominator between the Sunni, Shia and Kurdish opposition, accused by all sides of marginalization and political abuses. Facilitating a diverse and representative government represents the only US strategy capable of undermining Iraq’s militants.

Asking for Americans to concerns themselves with Iraq in 2013 further stretches reality, but they should stay alert themselves for a variety of reasons. At the most basic level, an enormous amount of blood and treasure is being wasted by poor decision-making in the war’s next phase. A loss of political influence, in turn, has contributed to a overall weakening of US policy in the region. Morally speaking, untold thousands continue to die in a war that America started on pretense, at the hands of an enemy that didn’t exist in Iraq before US troops arrived.

And strategically, similar mistakes and trends are unfolding at the “exits” of Afghanistan’s long war.

– James Gundun is an American political scientist and analyst of netwar. His blog, The Trench, covers the underreported areas of U.S. foreign policy and military activity. He contributed this article to Follow him on Twitter @RealistChannel.

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