Denial is the first sign of a problem, at least according to one psychological theory, and President Barack Obama has demonstrated an unabashed eagerness to prove it. During a briefing for his “Way Forward in Afghanistan,” one senior administration official was asked if negative public opinion played a role in determining the level of America's withdrawal. The official acknowledged financial troubles at home before denying that polls had influenced Obama’s decision.
The President would go on to argue that America is withdrawing from a position of strength, then spent the second half of his speech touting “nation-building at home.” A variety exit polls believed his decision, right or wrong, was politically calculated for the 2012 presidential election.
Now that Iraq is forcing itself back into the U.S. media cycle by speaking its language - American bloodshed - another tactic isn’t compatible with the rest of Afghanistan and Iraq’s comparison. Baghdad is supposedly due to rule on an extension its Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) before August, leaving July primed by all sides for a showdown over U.S. troop levels. For two years former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates threw his weight behind an extension, including one final push before his exit. While Obama ignored these calls right up to Gates’s ceremonial dismissal, promising to withdraw all forces by December, Ambassador James F. Jeffrey formally told reporters the Obama administration “would consider a request to keep some of the roughly 46,000 U.S. troops.”
For these reasons and more, attacks have increased against the present force to their highest level in two years. The U.S. media has since profiled the cause after three more casualties raised June’s toll to 14: Hezbollah Brigades and two branches of Muqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army. All three are funded by Iran’s Republican Guard. However the Mahdi Army has interwoven its movements through the Promised Day Brigade and Asaib Ahl al-Haq (League of Righteousness). The former serves as al-Sadr’s personal arm and accepts only nominal funding from Iran to maintain a nationalist orientation. Some Sadirst officials also claim the majority of the Mahdi army isn’t looking to fight, and that the Promised Day Brigade represents its hardened core.
Asaib Ahl al-Haq, the weakest of the three, has splintered off and funds itself solely through Iran’s Quds Force. Commanded by Qais al-Khazili, a former Sadr spokesman who was expelled in 2004, the League serves under the U.S.-designated “Special Groups,” a coalition of Shia militias brought online by Iran after the U.S. invasion. One Sadrist MP said of the group’s dynamic, "We have some leaders inside Sadr's offices and among Mehdi Army troops who follow Sadr publicly but they receive orders from Asaib.”
As he has done so frequently in the past, Gates singled out Iran one last time for funding its proxies in Iraq. True as his warning is in a vacuum, Iran’s response to America’s long-term presence in the region serves as an overt excuse to stay put. Beyond their propaganda campaign to “drive America out,” constant U.S. pressure on Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is fueling Iran and al-Sadr’s operations. Jeffrey claimed that rising violence is "not going to have an impact on us leaving or staying,” when this too can be inferred in the opposite; Shia militias are being openly exploited to justify the SOFA's extension.
Countering this impression as well, Jeffrey argued, “If we weren’t around, they’d go after somebody else. We’re target number one right now, but they’ll find other targets. This is a problem that Iraq has to deal with.”
While Hezbollah Brigades represents its own challenge, who would the Madhi army target without besides U.S. troops? Sunni militias, corrupt police and military units remain a possibility, except these are largely preexisting problems. The Mahdi army needs a reason to disintegrate or a mechanism to demilitarize into Iraq’s army. Frontal assaults are a relatively pointless display of strength, and U.S. officials claim that all Iranian-backed militias operate under cell-based secrecy. A major operation in Maysan, a border province led by al-Sadr’s choice of governor, is only intended to run interference and clean up the Iranian border.
2008’s battle in Basra merely brought Iraq's situation to its current point.
However Washington isn’t ultimately concerned with destroying the Mahdi Army, only managing it to justify a long-term military presence in Iraq. Jeffrey told reporters on Saturday, “Of particular concern, at least to me, is the Sadrist movement. The AAH (Asaib al-Haq) and the Kata’ib Hizballah are basically nothing more than thuggish clones of their IRGC Qods force masters.” This policy requires a reduction in al-Sadr’s amassing political power, and here the Pentagon’s goals converge with al-Maliki’s. Of equal consequence to his military activity, al-Sadr’s organization recently motioned 10 of 18 provincial councils to excluded U.S. forces from cities and government buildings. Basra's council was one of several to approve this resolution.
The reality is that limiting al-Sadr’s political and military capacity borders on an impossible task, one that trends towards confrontation over stability. al-Sadr didn’t seize power - millions of supporters voted for his bloc. Targeting his militia may provoke a response that Washington can capitalize on politically, but this strategy is useless in drying up popular support. Any isolation from outside the Shia ranks will be negated by al-Sadr’s rallying base, and other Iraqis are liable to reject the continued presence of U.S. troops.
Though an effective tactic inside Washington, efforts to scapegoat America's own problems and Iraq’s chronic struggles, including al-Maliki’s deficiencies, will fail to bear plentiful fruit in Iraq. The Prime Minister began his new term on shaky ground and has backed out of a foreign policy council due to be chaired by Ayad Allawi, his main challenger in 2010’s parliamentary election. Himself a Shia, Allawi was locked out of al-Maliki and al-Sadr’s own Shia bloc after eight months of political maneuvering, even though his Iraqiyya list had secured the highest number of individual seats. With Allawi and his Sunni constituents remaining marginalized and the Kurds consumed by their own interests, Maliki isn’t well positioned to challenge al-Sadr on the future of U.S. troops
Extending the SOFA remains a possibility, of course, but the collapse of al-Maliki's coalition would throw Iraq into new disorder.
Iraq is both a first and last line of defense against U.S. opinion in Afghanistan. Extend Iraq’s deadline and many Americans will question the authenticity of Afghanistan’s time-table, already an ambiguous concept. Though Obama pairs his “responsible ends” in the same sentence, Afghanistan lags far behind Iraq’s security forces, economic development and civil structure. The Taliban pose a greater opponent than Iraq’s patchwork insurgency and reconciliation will prove more complicated than Iraq’s political dynamics. So to slide on Iraq is to directly push Afghanistan’s time-line beyond 2015.
al-Sadr is politically savvy enough to understand this situation on top of Iraq’s internal dilemma. He knows that, contrary to U.S. claims, Obama cares a great deal about public opinion and cannot afford to stay in Iraq. If the White House intends to challenge al-Sadr directly, it must carefully weigh his combined political and military strength. America can obviously marshal international forces beyond al-Sadr’s scope, but his local weight is great enough to asymmetrically counter Washington’s.
And ties usually goes to the guerrilla.