President Obama reaffirmed on Monday that the US would have all combat troops out of Iraq by the end of August. He said that the final 50,000 would all be out of Iraq within 18 months, in accordance with the Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) negotiated by the Iraq parliament with the Bush administration in the latter’s last months.
T.S. Eliot wrote in “Hollow Men,” that “This is the way the world ends Not with a bang but a whimper.” And so too does the US combat mission in Iraq, initiated by George W. Bush and Richard Bruce Cheney in March, 2003 to promises that US troops would be garlanded and greeted as liberators by exultant Iraqis. Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz told Congress that the US troop strength would be down to about a division, some 25,000 men, by fall of 2003. Even in September of 2010, hundreds of thousands of dead Iraqis, over 3000 dead US troops, over 30,000 seriously wounded ones and over a trillion dollars later, there are still going to be twice that number.
The US did not ‘win’ the Iraq War. It simply outlasted it. It was strong enough to remain, during the Sunni guerrilla war and the Sunni-Shiite Civil War, until the Iraqis exhausted themselves with fighting. But the massive violence provoked by the US occupation so weakened the Bush administration that it was forced to accept a withdrawal timetable dictated by the Iraqi parliament, in part at the insistence of deputies loyal to Muqtada al-Sadr and others connected to Iran.
But the US combat mission in Iraq will likely draw to a close without there being an Iraqi government in place.
Although it is true that Obama is just faithfully following the SOFA (the timetable of which was dictated by the Iraqi parliament, not the Bush administration), it should be remembered that US adherence to the timetable could not be taken for granted. A President McCain would almost certainly have subverted the schedule and tried to keep more troops, and more active combat troops, in Iraq than the Iraqi legislators wanted. And, the outcome would have been a ratcheting up of tensions with Iran, Shiite militias, and Sunni nationalists.
Iraq is no paradise, and the Iraqi government thinks more civilians are being killed each month by guerrilla violence than the US military will admit. In fact, the Iraqi government thinks over 500 civilians and soldiers were killed in July, which would make it the most deadly month in the country since 2008. But the US military insists that only a little over 200 such persons were killed (deaths of insurgents are typically not counted in these statistics).
The Pentagon may be underestimating the number of deaths from political violence, but its spokesman is correct that the fatality rate from political violence is very substantially reduced from what it had been during the Civil War of 2006-07 between Sunnis and Shiites. The Shiites won that war and ethnically cleansed large numbers of Sunnis from the capital and its environs, which is a major reason for the fall in violence.
The main thing to remember is that the US military, all the time it was in Iraq, was never really in control at a neighborhood level and that tens of thousands of US troops could not prevent the Civil War from killing so many Iraqis. So there is no reason to think that keeping a large US combat force in Iraq could eliminate political violence. In fact, since the guerrillas used to lay roadside bombs for US convoys, and often missed and killed civilians, the end of active US patrols in the cities actually contributed to a fall in violence.
Moreover, US combat troops cannot help anyone form a government and are irrelevant to Iraq’s stalled political process. So Obama is right to stick to the timetable. I was watching the Iraqi satellite channel al-Sharqiya, which reported Obama’s speech with great enthusiasm.
Al-Hayat reports in Arabic that negotiations with the State of Law coalition of caretaker prime minister Nuri al-Maliki have been broken off by the Shiite religious parties, the National Iraqi Alliance (including the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq of Ammar al-Hakim and the Sadr Bloc of Muqtada al-Sadr). The religious parties want al-Maliki to step down and for the State of Law coalition (in which the Da’wa or Islamic Mission Party of al-Maliki is the major component) to choose a different candidate for prime minister.
Al-Maliki angrily criticized his opponents on Monday, saying that they are angling for a weak prime minister who will be hostage to a few political factions, leaving the country open to being weakened by sectarian faction-fighting.
There is no end in sight of the political stalemate, which points to severe problems with Iraq’s largely US-authored constitution. The March 7 elections produced a ‘hung parliament’ in which no one party has enough seats to form a majority, and it has proved impossible for the four major coalitions to come together around a national unity government because they cannot agree on who should be its prime minister. The Shiite religious parties make the most natural partners for al-Maliki, also from a Shiite religious party, the Da’wa. But he sent the army against the Mahdi Army of al-Sadr in 2008 in order to restore order in Basra and East Baghdad, and the Sadrists want al-Maliki to step down in favor of another candidate.
Iyad Allawi of the secular Iraqiya list, which received 80% of the Sunni Arab vote, wants to be prime minister because his list got 91 seats, the single best showing. But 91 seats in a parliament of 325 does not mean much, and in reality whoever can put together a coalition with 163 seats will form the government.
Competition between Iran and Saudi Arabia is also complicating matters. Iran backs a big Shiite coalition, while Saudi Arabia is firmly in Allawi’s corner because of his Sunni Arab constituency. ( Riyadh is said to want a bigger role in Iraq to offset Iranian influence, a goal that can be realized only if Allawi and the Iraqiya come to power. The US is also backing Allawi, because of his anti-Iran credentials.
And so, with a whimper rather than a bang, the US will surrender any primary combat role in Iraq to a caretaker government and a green, inefficient army, leaving a major Persian Gulf power in shambles and at risk of ongoing violence and instability. It isn’t ideal. But attempting to stay in Iraq militarily would only cause more instability.
Now if only the Afghan parliament would negotiate a similar SOFA for that country, and the other war could be wound down as well.