As its Iraq mission shrinks, how much of a say can America retain?

Critics blame the Obama administration for paving the way for the ascent of militia factions.
Sunday 18/02/2018
US Army soldiers stand next to a guided-missile launcher in the Iraqi village of Abu Ghaddur, last year. (AP)
The Iran factor. US Army soldiers stand next to a guided-missile launcher in the Iraqi village of Abu Ghaddur. (AP)

A winter of tough decisions and discussions between Washington and Baghdad has come full circle with calls for US troops to withdraw. The promise or demand for America’s departure has been the most enduring feature of their strategic alliance. The United States has begun drawing down its presence as Iraq navigates testing times in preparation of the post-caliphate phase.

The “responsible end” former US President Barack Obama promised in 2010 was not only unfilled, it is no longer plausible, as Iraq sinks deeper into debt with little sovereignty or hard currency. Current US President Donald Trump, dodging the quicksand of Iraq’s widening debts, relies on the firmness of his country’s narrative of victory — in a war that is increasingly difficult to win. Redeployment of US soldiers from Iraq to another unwinnable war is his administration’s solution.

The process has kick-started with the redeployment of approximately 150 US soldiers, Iraqi security analyst Hisham al-Hashimi told Al Jazeera Arabic.

“The war in Afghanistan now takes priority over events in Iraq and Syria,” US historian Andrew Bacevich said and the “Pentagon is shifting resources accordingly.” More training and advising is expected across Iraq and Syria, where America’s troops are likely to stay indefinitely, Bacevich said.

“The direct insertion of US forces in the greater Middle East that began with Operation Desert Storm will continue despite the absence of evidence that it is producing any positive outcomes,” Bacevich said.

Behind Washington’s professed concern over potential and rising terror in Afghanistan is a more rational calculation, or doubt rather, in Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi’s ability to sway the public mood to secure a second term in office. The tougher stance of other candidates earned Abadi US backing, not out of choice but due to a lack of options.

Trump’s administration fears that Abadi may be upstaged by militia candidates whose designs threaten to transform Iraq’s army into a parallel force mimicking Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). This is a prospect that arouses fear not only in the White House but in Iraqi society at large.

Critics lay the blame at the door of the Obama administration, which they say paved the way for the ascent of militia factions with indifference.

Iran-backed groups including al-Hashed al-Shaabi, Harakat al-Nujaba, Kata’ib Hezbollah and Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq, also known as the Khazali network, have emphasised the need for a complete US withdrawal and claim Abadi seeks the same. Ahmad Majidyar, director of the IranObserved Project, citing the Fars news agency, said Abadi was warned by Hezbollah’s permutation in Iraq and “urged… not to fall into America’s ‘trap,’ secretly working to formalise its long-term presence.”

Iran’s continued support for its proxies makes America’s complete withdrawal improbable.

While the United States questions where the loyalties of Iraq’s militias lie, Iran’s loyalty towards them has also been questioned. In the words of Dawa Party defector Izzat Shahbandar: “Those who give you rockets to attack others today will give rockets to others to attack you tomorrow.”

Heroic or triumphalist rhetoric badly masks the truth of the United States’ once amicable relation with those groups. When a bourgeoning and fierce cross-sectarian insurgency threatened America’s interest in a country it forcefully occupied, US Army General David Petraeus was under no illusion of the political camp in which militiamen invested loyalty.

With US dollars, the United States purchased temporary alliances but it has abandoned the act of balancing the interests of competing actors. It was recently confirmed by a Pentagon watchdog that Iran-backed militias seized nine Abrams tanks gifted to Iraq’s post-2003 army.

While the United States’ mission begins to shrink, it is important to note that this is neither the end nor the beginning but an attempt to tell the world this is what victory looks like.

By redeploying forces from one terrorist hotbed to another, the United States is not forced to reconsider its strategy or to reconcile the role it assumes in combating terrorism with its Iraq exit — even if only partially.

“Of course, it was a military victory and a humanitarian catastrophe,” said Ross Caputi, a veteran of the second siege of Falluja, “not worth celebrating.” While welcoming the departure of a fellow soldier, “we’re shirking our real responsibility, which is to pay reparations to Iraqis for destroying their country” said Caputi, president of the Boston University Anti-War Coalition.

Before that can happen, Iraq must be rebuilt with help from 73 of the United States’ anti-Islamic State coalition partners, while it watches from the sidelines.

With one foot in Iraq, another in Afghanistan and a toehold in Syria, the United States is only extending its unwelcomed stay in one of the world’s most hostile regions.