With a Whimper, not a Bang; A Milestone on the Way to the End of American Iraq

T.S. Eliot wrote at the end of “Hollow Men” in 1926, “This is the way the world ends/ Not with a bang but a whimper.” He may as well have been talking about the war George W. Bush launched in Iraq in 2003.

The end of routine, independent patrolling of major Iraqi cities by US troops today is a major milestone in modern Iraqi history.

Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki declared Tuesday “National Sovereignty Day.” Some 86 US bases have been closed in recent weeks (see the Jim Muir report). The LAT says that on Monday night, people in Baghdad danced in the streets, sang and set off (non-lethal) fireworks even in the midst of a dust storm.

Some Americans might find all this celebrating offensive. But the US public has mostly moved on, little interested in the foreign wars its armed forces are still fighting, and worried much more about the long-term consequences of the Republican Party’s Ponzi-scheme economy of 2001-2008, the collapse of which has cost them or their family and friends their jobs. As in the 1930s, even celebrity gossip and the glitz of Hollywood are more present in people’s minds than distant armies on the march. The public and the mass media mysteriously ignored the Afghanistan War right from 2002, and now Iraq is being given the same treatment, even though there are 130,000 or so US troops in Iraq and 38,000 in Afghanistan, and both contingents are still fighting and dying.

The end of US patrolling should neither be exaggerated nor downplayed as a turning point. Of course, US troops will still be in Iraqi streets from time to time, accompanying Iraqi forces. Special Operations teams will likely engage in surgical strikes in coordination with their Iraqi colleagues for years to come.

But there is an essential difference between such occasional interventions of a collaborative sort and routine patrols by a foreign military of densely populated urban areas in an Arab, Muslim country. The latter is viewed as a form of neo-colonialism by most Iraqis. The former could be welcome if it adds to law and order.

I was talking to a US military officer who had been in Baghdad in December, and he told me that he thought that Iraqi troops were now capable of patrolling independently, something he would not have said a year or two earlier. If they get into trouble, he said, they stand and fight. They still have poor logistical support. If the firefight lasts 5 hours rather than one hour, they might be in trouble because no one is bringing them ammunition and water. Az-Zaman writes in Arabic that the governor of Najaf remarked Sunday that US troops would still provide logistical support to Iraqi ones, despite the end of routine American patrols.

The Iraqi military has been setting up extra patrols and checkpoints in preparation for the cessation of American patrols. The az-Zaman article cited above speaks of some mysteries, including the incarceration of dozens of Iraqis in the provinces. And there is the sudden release of a major Mahdi Army militia commander. Is Washington trying to cut a deal as it leaves?

That the Iraqi military has experienced a sudden increase in efficiency is attested by relatively successful campaigns in 2008 against the Mahdi Army Shiite militia in Basra, Amara, Nasiriya, and Sadr City (East Baghdad). Security appears tangibly to have improved in the south in the aftermath. Still, of course the Iraqi police and other security forces have a long way to go toward professionalism.

Aljazeera English has video on the constant threat to police from guerrillas:

Of course, the operations in Basra and east Baghdad succeeded in part because the US air force gave the Iraqi military close air support. That is another way that the US is not just vanishing from Iraq. Iraq does not have an air force and will not have one for something close to a decade, and its government wants the US to act as a surrogate Iraqi air force for the time being. Note, however, that such air support can be proffered from al-Udeid base in Qatar. It does not require a base inside Iraq.

More US troops will be withdrawn, though Gen. Ray Odierno wants to have a big enough force in January to help provide security for the parliamentary elections that month. I think there is some fear that if US troops are not sufficient in number to help lock down the country for the elections, that paucity of troops may encourage Sunni Arab radicals to disrupt the balloting with massive car bombings. Moreover, there is a danger of Iranian hard liners trying to steal the Iraqi elections, as a repeat performance of what happened in Iran on June 12, by using petrodollars to buy votes for their hard line Shiite allies.

In the medium term, the bombings by Sunni Arab guerrilla groups who cannot reconcile to the Shiite- and Kurdish-led new government, will likely continue. It is not clear, however, that such bombings can actually undermine the new government or force a radical change. If they cannot, they are useless.

The end of major US combat operations, prematurely announced by Bush on the USS Lincoln in 2003, may finally be at hand. Iraq faces many challenges going forward. Corruption is almost crippling for reconstruction. There has been little political reconciliation. Guerrillas are still deadly, as are sectarian militias. An Arab-Kurdish struggle over oil-rich Kirkuk of some ferocity could break out at any time. Increasingly, however, these problems will have to be dealt with by the new Iraqi elite itself.

End/ (Not Continued)