Last Wednesday White House spokesman Robert Gibbs spun a tall tale. Iraq’s security had improved so much that, “the level of violence observed over the past two weeks had been among the lowest in number of incidents that the coalition has seen since record-keeping on those incidences began.” Due in large part to Iraqi security forces, US training has “fully prepared” them to “be in the lead when we end our combat mission later this month.” Meanwhile Iraq’s political parties are “making progress” towards forming a new government.
As a result, Gibbs insisted that President Barack Obama entertains no thoughts of altering the withdrawal time-line that US combat troops exit by August 30th and every last troop by December 2011. When asked about the possibility that the two governments could edit Iraq’s Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA), Gibbs declined to engage in hypotheticals.
US Defense Secretary Robert Gates would: “If a new government is formed there and they want to talk about beyond 2011, we're obviously open to that discussion. But that initiative will have to come from the Iraqis."
Gibbs’s portrait of Iraq suffered a Saddam-like collapse. Flash-fried by Gates that same day, Iraqi chief of staff Lt. General Babaker Zebari responded 12 hours later, “If I were asked about the withdrawal, I would say to politicians: the US army must stay until the Iraqi army is fully ready in 2020." Though US officials and analysts contextualized Zebari’s thoughts as a warning to Iraq’s political parties, Zebari’s perspective must also be viewed through resurgent attacks on Iraqi security forces.
Gibbs never got around to explaining himself. Taking the next day off, he lucked out when reporters failed to follow up the day after and hasn’t briefed the media since. Who would though with grim reality waiting in the audience? Dual bombings in Baghdad, one amidst a crowd of Iraqi police recruits, pushed August’s death toll for security forces to 57, with at least 172 civilians dead and hundreds more wounded. Already challenging for 2010’s most violent month, August would approach 2008 levels of 80+ security forces and 300+ civilians dead were it to sustain its current pace.
These figures pale to the tens of thousands of Iraqis senselessly lost in a quasi-civil war during 2005-07, but they also display the sober reality that Iraq’s war - and pain - is far from over. The Bush administrations’ confusing of fourth generation insurgency with high-tech, third generation warfare created the original root of evil and cannot be repeated now.
Yet Gibbs’s absence didn't herald a change in policy or marketing. Likely envisioned as a triumph, the 4th Stryker Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division crossed into Kuwait eight days later, the last of America’s combat troops withdrawing ahead of schedule. The White House highlighted this “accomplishment” by “saluting service in Iraq” on its website, including encouraging speeches from Obama and Vice President Joe Biden. And the White House’s blog left nothing to the imagination by proclaiming: Ending the War in Iraq.
This statement would be truer in conventional terms, but in the realm of counterinsurgency Iraq's militants were destined to persevere after US forces withdrew. Swift political resolution, the best option for staving off the insurgency, was never realistic given Iraq’s history and demographics. Operation Iraqi Freedom has ended, but the obvious question of how “successful” America’s war will become, from 2003 to 20XX, leads to the immediate dilemma facing Iraq’s future. Though Obama has stuck to his promise of withdrawing forces, is he “responsibly ending the war in Iraq” as stated on the White House’s website?
Or just trying to end it?
Iraq isn’t about to revert to its bloody state in 2006, although the specter of civil war grows in proportion to the division between political parties. But the insurgency won't end by 2011 or for years afterward; terror networks may hold out for decades. The insurgency is entering a new phase of violence attempting to complete a series of objectives. If Iraq’s political and economic environment can be disrupted, financially marginalized Iraqis disillusioned by Baghdad’s politics will continue supplying al-Qaeda and other elements of the insurgency, undermining the US message of “victory.”
al-Qaeda’s aim extends transnationally by demonstrating that a military surge only yields a temporary solution to potentially intractable political divisions - ripening seeds of doubt within General David Petraeus's surge in Afghanistan.
Iraqi government officials have played straight into the insurgents’ hands. From 2008 al-Qaeda’s strategy calculated a return after Iraq’s parliamentary election last March, realizing that US forces would be minimized and internal political splits as prevalent as ever. The relationship between Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s State of Law (89 seats), Ayad Allawi’s Iraqiya List (91), the Shia National Iraqi Alliance (70), and Coalition of Kurdistan Lists (52) makes an agreement possible at any time (163 seats are necessary to form a new government).
As each party vies to fill America's void, their relative equality also blocks the government's development six months after the election. State of Law and the National Iraqi Alliance’s merger left them four seats shy of the minimum and they still disagree on a new prime minister; their relationship is on hold. Iraqiya recently suspended negotiations with State of Law that would have breached the necessary threshold after al-Maliki portrayed Iraqiya as Sunni rather than inclusive. Meanwhile the National Iraqi Alliance, home of cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, is negotiating with both al-Maliki and Allawi. The Kurds have entrenched themselves to await the highest bidder.
With each side playing directly off the others, avoiding indefinite gridlock and the exclusion of one or two parties requires an improbable universal agreement. America possesses no magic bullet for this situation, but denial can exacerbate it.
Although US officials claim to be deeply involved with Iraqi leaders, which they surely are, the power vacuum has also become a scapegoat in Washington. Gibbs claimed that a six month negotiating phase was expected, implying that violence is acceptable and will drop once a government is formed. The assumption of a resolution by August’s end ignores how the present vacuum deflects blame from al-Qaeda. Rather than obstructing democracy, al-Qaeda is merely exploiting the same outcome that many Iraqis and US officials predicted.
Current ground conditions indicate that violence will persist through 2011, at the minimum; the insurgency may even return underground until the final 50,000 US troops withdraw. It’s also safe to conclude that Iraq's chronic instability jades US generals’ perception of Afghanistan. Petraeus doesn’t want to see his next surge slip away too, partially explaining his “conditions-based” notion of July 2011. Conversely, Obama is sticking to his Iraqi deadline as any delay threatens his credibility in Afghanistan.
But by staying true to part of the promise, Obama is unlikely to fulfill his promise as a whole. The combination of violence, political stalemate, and economic instability represents the full might of an insurgency, yet Operation New Dawn is increasingly counter-terroristic beneath its political veneer. “After August 31, 2010, the mission of United States forces in Iraq will fundamentally change,” reads the White House’s website. US forces “will have three tasks: train, equip, and advise the Iraqi Security Forces,” although a forth is subsequently listed for US Special Forces: “conduct targeted counter-terrorism operations.”
While an extension of US forces isn’t the answer and non-military operations will accompany them, Iraqi officials have repeatedly questioned whether Washington has flipped the withdrawal on autopilot as Afghanistan usurps priority. A charge US officials naturally deny, these grumblings have been muttered by all quarters including the military. Adel Abdul Mahdi, a leading National Iraqi Alliance member and prime minister candidate, recently said of Washington, “They are trying to find an outcome but maybe not in a well-prepared way. It should have been in a better studied way than it has been up to now.”
Obama sounds like he wants out when US and Iraqi military officials want in, a classic example of campaign promises battling military conditions.
This web leads to Obama’s pledge that he, “intends to keep our commitment under the Status of Forces Agreement to remove all of our troops from Iraq by the end of 2011,” a veiled admission that he would accept revision to the SOFA as Gates and Zebari indicate. A compromise, no matter what the White House says, is in the works. US-Iraqi military ties are set for the next decade and the State Department’s growing number of personnel and private contractors hint at military operations, in some form, past 2011. Looming conflict with Iran suggests that US forces have ulterior motives to extend their stay.
But while postponing the exit of US forces may solve the problem of training Iraqi forces, they would also spawn new military and political discord counterproductive to counterinsurgency.
Muqtada al-Sadr won’t be America’s only obstacle if US military forces extend their stay, but he is one of the most complex. Providing a vivid glimpse of the future to The Washington Post, Abu Mohmmed explained the Sadr militia’s strategy in the event that US forces don’t withdraw by December 2011. The caretaker of al-Sadr’s “martyr’s cemetery,” which entombs over 4,000 Iraqis, gestured to an empty, adjacent lot, saying “this will be our solution.” Sadr's militia is estimated between 30,000 and 60,000.
"If the Americans leave, which we don't think they will, we'll make it a burial site for our parents," Mohammed warned. "If their exit is delayed, we will fight and give our blood.”
US military officials wasted no time showing disregard for counterinsurgency, tagging al-Sadr’s militia as a danger to Iraq's security and U.S. troops while pledging cooperation with the Iraqi government to arrest militia members. Though al-Maliki is happy to dry up his competition, he’s also limited by the fact that the Sadrist Movement won 40 seats in the parliamentary election. He has no choice except to engage the legitimate political power of Muqtada al-Sadr, especially when Allawi is. US forces reveal no such concern.
Clearly America is worried of a Hezbollah clone in Iraq, but accepting al-Sadr and his movement into the political fold, like Sunni tribesmen, offers the most realistic chance of preventing this scenario. While al-Sadr evolves his fourth generation movement into a resilient network, the US military continues demonizing him with threats and petty tricks. Sheik Kadhim al-Saadi, a Sadrist sheik in Baghdad, explained, “The war is different now; it's intellectual, political, and we have a military wing.” Maj. Gen. Stephen Lanza, the top U.S. military spokesman in Iraq, called al-Sadr’s cemetery - a physical location - "rhetoric" and "propaganda.”
Given Washington’s private and public opposition to al-Sadr’s legitimate power, the responsibility of Iraq’s drawdown is wide open to skepticism. These problems must be confronted head on. The last US combat troops have crossed into Kuwait, but they leave behind an uncertain political environment and a diverse insurgency with years of life in reserve. Yet the White House appears intent on denying Iraq’s conditions until no longer tenable.
Maybe honesty isn't considered part of responsibility.