Hidden blessings for US in Iraq pullout By Brian M Downing
United States President Barack Obama announced on Friday that US troops would
be out of Iraq by the end of 2011, little more than two months away.
This date was set three years ago with the Iraqi government's status of forces
agreement, but two US administrations have tried to extend that date.
Negotiations with Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki have failed and now the US must
race to meet the deadline
by selling off or giving away large amounts of military hardware to regional
allies before heading for Kuwait and beyond.
Washington currently has fewer than 40,000 US troops in Iraq, down from an
all-time high of 170,000 in late 2007.
What does the imminent departure of troops mean for US foreign policy and
regional stability? It presents the US with the opportunity to shape events in
Iraq and the Gulf region through diplomacy and tact - processes that the US may
find less fiscally burdensome and more fruitful.
US personnel in Iraq A small number of military personnel - perhaps a few hundred - will remain
in-country to help with arms sales and with the training of Iraqis in their
use. Some training will be done in Iraq while other missions will be done in
nearby countries such as Kuwait. Much of it will be done by civilians, almost
all of whom are recent retirees, as expertise in fighters and armored vehicles
is of course not found outside the military. More robust but less above board
operations are likely as well.
It will not strain credulity to think that the Iraqi government will secretly
authorize the US to keep intelligence and special forces personnel in Iraq. The
country is wracked by terrorist bombings that kill scores of people, chiefly
Shiites, on an almost weekly basis, and the Maliki government has shown no
ability to staunch them.
The Sunni resistance is evolving from the array of tribal, Ba'athist, Salafist,
and foreign units that fought the US years ago into a disciplined group with
likely ties to foreign Sunni governments - Saudi Arabia foremost among them.
Maliki will need US intelligence to counter the emerging Sunni forces, though
he will never publicly acknowledge it. The keen observer will likely see drone
aircraft overhead for years to come.
The US will likely keep intelligence and special forces personnel in the
Kurdish regions to the north. The Kurdish North is practically a separate state
with its own army, constitution, and flag, so this can be done without approval
from or even the knowledge of the government in Baghdad. At the very least the
US will maintain electronic surveillance posts charged with listening in on
adjacent Iran. Beyond that, US intelligence may train Kurdish groups to conduct
covert operations against Iran, though it could simply observe Saudi and
Israeli involvement with such operations.
The US political agenda
Back in Baghdad, however, at the largest US Embassy in the world, the US will
coordinate various intelligence, political, and diplomatic activities to reduce
Iranian influence in Iraq, manage sectarian conflict inside the country, and
contain Saudi-Iranian antagonisms. Daunting undertakings all, though perhaps
ones more practically pursued without an overt ground presence.
The ouster of Saddam Hussein's regime in 2003 led, predictably, to increased
Iranian influence. During the Iran-Iraq War (1980-1988) Tehran built political
movements, militias, and intelligence networks in Iraq's Shi'ite population -
some 60% of the population. After 2003, Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guards
Corps (IRGC) strengthened Tehran's influence by arming and training Shi'ite
militias, funding development projects in Shi'ite communities, and settling
disputes within the rancorous Shi'ite parties to help form a viable government.
Iranian influence is formidable but not irreversible. The common adherence to
Shi'ite Islam is often pointed to - especially by Saudi Arabia - as evidence of
immutable solidarity and common purpose in world affairs. This is reminiscent
of the misguided Cold War certainty that the common ideology of the Soviet
Union and China made them cheek by jowl in the cause of spreading communism.
There were fissures between the two communist powers and there are fissures
between the two Shi'ite ones.
Tensions between Arabs and "Persians" persist and offer openings to diplomatic
leverages. In the long Iran-Iraq War, most Iraqi Shi'ites fought reliably
against Iran and most Iranian Arabs fought reliably against Iraq - despite
ample propaganda calling for each group to rally to the other side.
Maliki seeks to build an independent state, one not beholden to the US or Iran,
and will not oppose reducing the IRGC presence in his military, state, and
nation. This will be the US's goal: a neutral Iraq whose strength rests on its
own national identity and natural resources, and not on the ideologies and
causes of regional powers.
The US will try to limit the increasing tensions between Iran and Saudi Arabia.
Tensions were greatly heightened in the early days of the Iranian Revolution in
1979 when Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini called for uprisings around the Islamic
world, including the Shi'ites of Saudi Arabia. The demise of Saddam Hussein's
regime removed a serious obstacle to Iranian power and from the perspective of
Riyadh, opened the gates to Shi'ite expansion. The puzzlingly foolish IRGC plot
to assassinate the Saudi ambassador to the US has raised tensions further.
In recent months the Saudis, in conjunction with Israel, have been likely
complicit in various assassinations, bombings, and insurgencies inside Iran and
have added to their mercenary force of Pakistani and Iraqi Sunnis. They have
also coalesced disparate Sunni groups in central Iraq, parts of which have been
waging the deadly bombing campaign in Shi'ite areas. Thus far, the Shi'ite
government in Baghdad has acted with restraint, but the US departure in just
two months might trigger a brutal crackdown in Sunni regions leading to
The US would do well to urge Iraq to continue its general restraint and to act
surgically against Sunni militant groups, bring the Sunnis into the political
process, and avoid the internecine fighting of a few years ago. Looking longer
term, the US can encourage a neutral Iraq to work with smaller Gulf states to
moderate animosities between the two Gulf powers.
US prestige and influence
The Obama administration's failure to obtain an extended troops presence in
Iraq is a disappointment in Washington. It should not be seen as a serious one.
Indeed, given the complexities and fissures in Iraq, it may well be a blessing.
The US will continue to have bases or port access in Bahrain, Kuwait, the
United Arab Emirates, and Oman. (There may also be secret bases in Saudi
Arabia.) Bases in Iraq would hardly add to US or Gulf security. US troops in
Iraq would be drawn into direct peacekeeping between Sunni and Shi'ite groups
and by extension between Saudi Arabia and Iran - difficult and open-ended
undertakings at a time when the US must be more frugal and thoughtful in
foreign policy. Those missions, as noted, can be better pursued through
diplomacy in conjunction with smaller Gulf states.
Leaving Iraq will ease the US of the burdensome image of invader and occupier
of a Muslim country, which of course has strengthened al-Qaeda and like-minded
groups from the Maghreb to Indonesia. The departure will also weaken the
foreign jihadi presence in Iraq, which was likely important in Maliki's
decision to deny the US troop extension.
Iraq, though beset by sectarian conflict and situated between two antagonistic
regional powers, can steer a neutral course. It can play off the US, Saudi
Arabia, and Iran and become a critical balancer in a vital and volatile part of
the world. Combined with oil wealth, Iraq can become an influential democracy,
cordial to Sunni powers and independent of Iran. The US should assist Iraq in
this strategy, from offshore.
Brian M Downing is a political/military analyst and author of The
Military Revolution and Political Change and The Paths of Glory: War and
Social Change in America from the Great War to Vietnam. He can be reached at
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