Daniel R. DePetris: The Political Docket

Iraq’s Questionable Future: A Response to Dr. Ivan Arreguin-Toft Prediction

Posted in Iraq by Dan on July 5, 2009
Iraq may become a playground for its neighbors

Iraq may become a playground for its neighbors

Dr. Arreguin-Toft, your assessment regarding the current political and security situation in Iraq is absolutely correct.  Ever since the U.S.-led invasion successfully toppled Saddam-Hussein’s ironclad leadership in 2003, the Iraqi population in general has relied heavily on the presence and capability of armed American personnel.  For the past six years, U.S. soldiers have acted primarily as a major police contingent on the streets of Baghdad…attempting to keep the average Iraqi safe from indiscriminate violence , all the while keeping relative peace between Iraq’s dominate sectarian groupings (Sunnis, Shia, and Kurds).

However, with the remarkable work of American troops internationally-recognized and embraced, it became increasingly clear that all of the technology, sophistication, and heavily-armed aircraft in the world would be incapable of quelling a foreign insurgency.  This became all too evident on a daily-basis throughout 2005-2007, a period when the “minor acts” of criminal behavior transformed into a full-fledged civil war.  Assassinations, suicide-bombings, sporadic gunfire, and planned-roadside bomb attacks were so prevalent that such became the norm rather than the exception.  Washington was both surprised and overwhelmed by its scope, a level of violence that quickly surpassed anything Iraq had experienced in its history as a modern nation-state.  In fact, it was this very same insurgency that put the world’s remaining superpower to the test, both in terms of tactics and prestige.  America’s allies throughout Europe began to question whether the United States Military could actually mitigate, let alone defeat, the brutality that often claimed the lives of thousands of men, women, and children.

As in most armed-conflicts, the same men who were once perceived as liberators slowly transformed into occupiers that long overstayed their welcome.  While General David Petreaus’ counterinsurgency doctrine was certainly successful in dramatically decreasing the levels of sectarian violence throughout Iraq’s major cities, I fear that a significant U.S. withdrawal (as defined and outlined through the Status of Forces Agreement) will seriously hinder any prospects for a stable peace.

It is surely impossible to speak of “peace with honor” when suicide bombings, assassinations, and insurgent attacks continue to plague Baghdad on a daily-basis.  Yes, the militants that once controlled vast portions of Al-Anbar province have scaled back their operations over the past two years.  Once again, the extraordinary work of the U.S. contingent (as well as the smarts of General Petreaus) should be widely credited for this development.  But is a 24-month trend of limited violence enough evidence to finally give Iraq a positive label?  Has the Iraq mission truly reached a new pinnacle, one that has established the first stable democracy in the heart of the Middle East?  The very fact that Al-Qaeda is heavily entrenched in Central and Northern Iraq lends credence to the absurdity of these statements.

Unfortunately, as American soldiers leave Iraq’s metropolitan areas in accordance to a rushed Status of Forces Agreement, the possibility of a resurgent Islamic insurgency is all too real.  The resounding work of U.S. troops over the past two years may be seriously undermined in the near future.  Sadly, the average American soldier has no control over his (or her) destiny.  Rather than complete their mission and continue building up Iraq’s security forces, all are required to depart for the barracks.

Of course, the disengagement of U.S. marines from the streets of Iraq has become a focal point for the world media.  After all, handing over security responsibilities to the Iraqi Military is especially noteworthy, given the destitution and corruption that once pervaded its ranks only a few years ago.  Despite the drastic improvement in discipline and training that is essential for victory in Iraq, there is still a certain amount of skepticism throughout the international community as to whether the ISF has what it takes to close the deal.  It is especially difficult to belief that the Iraqis themselves will be able to sustain the violence rate similar to 2007 and 2008 levels.  When one considers the fact that a large portion of the ISF includes tens of thousands of Sunni insurgents that once launched attacks against innocent civilians, one can only hope that breaches in security and intelligence will kept to a minimum.

While a steady rise in suicide bombings and killings are especially concerning in their own right, the real challenge for the young Iraqi democracy will come two years down the road:  when the U.S. Military fully disengages from the Iraqi conflict.  It is not a return of intra-state fighting that frightens me (such fighting may always occur in a country with a fractious sectarian divide).  Rather, it is the behavior of regional actors such as Iran and Saudi Arabia that should concern U.S. policymakers.  Both countries, already rivals in the Middle East, may be tempted to exploit Iraq’s weak domestic environment by funding, supporting, or arming local movements that advance their own national-interests.  The Islamic Republic of Iran has already performed these same maneuvers…the United States and Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki have routinely blamed Tehran’s clerical government for funneling weapons to Shia militias in Southern Iraq.  With a lack of American firepower evident as the January 1, 2012 deadline approaches, this type of covert activity may indeed step up to unprecedented levels.  Iran may continue to fund Iraqi groups sympathetic to Tehran’s strategic vision for the Middle East, while Saudi Arabia may respond by arming Sunnis to the teeth…either in the hopes of taming Iran’s growing influence or perhaps to bolster its own wealth and power in the region.

Dr. Arreguin-Toft states “Iran is likely to have as much luck bossing the Iraqis after a U.S. withdrawal as China did bossing the Vietnamese in 1975.”  Yet, such comparisons are virtually meaningless given the large number of skirmishes, interventions, and proxy-wars that have come to dominate the political landscape of the Middle East.  Neighboring states within the region have even carried on the habit of launching direct warfare against one another, for a variety of reasons (Iraq’s invasion of Iran in 1980 and Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990 are both appropriate examples for this phenomenon).  With Riyadh continuing to advocate for further sanctions aimed at Iran’s nuclear program, and with Iran continuing to fund Hamas and Hezbollah, an Iraq ungoverned by Americans could potentially turn into a battleground for a covert war of ideas.

Of course, all of this is speculation.  No one will surely know until January 2012 is marked on our calendars.  However, such an apocalyptic conclusion can quickly turn into a reality, given the recent turmoil that Iraq has experienced (and is continuing to experience) over the last week.  As history has routinely shown us, an unstable country has the habit of changing into a valuable theater for increased political power, wealth, and international influence.  Just ask Lebanon.

-Daniel R. DePetris

-A piece from Ivan Arreguin-Toft of Boston University contributed to this blog.  A full version of his piece can be accessed at: http://walt.foreignpolicy.com/posts/2009/06/30/peace_with_honor

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