February 27, 2012

U.S. Bleeding Out Influence In Iraq

On Saturday the U.S. Army positively identified the remains of its last missing member in Iraq: Staff Sgt. Ahmed Al-Taie, a native Iraqi. Recruited into the Army Reserve’s language ops, Al-Taie spent his deployment with a provincial reconstruction team and, according to his wife’s in-laws, frequently snuck off base to meet his wife. Militiamen would eventually kidnap him between houses.

A small-scale similarity to the concrete withdrawal of America’s combat troops, Al-Taie’s story is liable to reinforce the impression that Iraq’s war has finally reached some sort of end. The American public certainly wants the war to be over, but insurgencies aren’t known to quit on specific dates or with formal proclamations. Worse still, a lack of popular interest fused with Afghanistan’s surge and other global issues (such as Iran) to reduce the Obama administration's urgency to engage Baghdad’s political sphere. Nouri-al-Maliki belatedly entered a second term as prime minister on the arms of Washington and Tehran, and was left to his own devices until a tenuous power-sharing agreement collapsed in December 2011.

The upshot: U.S. influence continues to decline as Iraq’s violence gradually intensifies.

Around the same time that al-Maliki’s government issued a warrant for Vice President Tareq al-Hashemi, charging him with funding Sunni death-squads, his Iraqiya chief broadcast an ominous message for Washington’s consumption. "There is no democracy in Iraq,” Ayad Allawi, al-Maliki’s main rival, told The Wall Street Journal in mid-December. Days before his warning, Obama had welcomed al-Maliki as the leader of a democratic state and unconsciously fueled Baghdad’s political fire. Saleh al-Mutlaq, Iraq’s Deputy Prime Minister, scoffed at Obama’s approval while branding al-Maliki as “a dictator,” leading al-Maliki to seek a no-confidence vote from Parliament.

Allawi himself would later reject Obama’s statements, saying that Iraq is “neither stable nor democratic, frankly speaking... Al Qaeda is fully operational now in Iraq.” He also told CNN’s Fareed Zakaria that Iran “put a red-line against me,” referring to al-Maliki’s foreign support, “and unfortunately the United States went along with what Iran desired.”

Iraqiya’s chief can’t be surprised by anything he sees in 2012. After walking out of parliament following disagreements over the U.S.-brokered power-sharing deal, Allawi told CNN in November 2010, "We think the concept of power-sharing is dead now. It's finished." The latest developments and their relation to Iraq’s fundamental problems forced Iraqiya into another boycott that remains unresolved. Although some members returned in early February to convene on Iraq’s budget, al-Mutlaq and al-Hashimi’s cases are sinking deeper into Baghdad’s political abyss as Iraqiya maintains a cabinet boycott. Several members also called for al-Maliki’s replacement, hardening al-Maliki’s own line as he prepares to outlast Allawi and other challengers.

Washington’s response to the ongoing crisis has been minimal from the start of Obama’s flashpoint, including a refusal to acknowledge his direct role in the breakdown between parties. Ignoring al-Maliki’s behavior over a period of years, the administration tasked Vice President Joe Biden cool al-Maliki down and urged Iraqiya officials to keep their thoughts on the Premier to themselves. Unwilling to apply sincere pressure to al-Maliki, the situation is now running beyond Washington’s lobbying for a ubiquitous “National Dialogue” (this one lead by Kurdish President Jalal Talabani). However al-Maliki and Iraqiya have come to perceive such a venue as a tool to minimize each other’s power, and reconciliation measures are needed before a dialogue even begins.

Recent factors alone are insufficient to revive al-Qaeda in Iraq and other Sunni insurgent groups, but their sleeper strategy is playing out to perfection as Baghdad feuds with itself. Quick to alter its narrative according to the situation, al-Qaeda released a statement attributing its latest chain-bombing to “revenge for the elimination and torture campaigns that Sunni men and women face in the prisons of Baghdad and other cities.” Several days earlier, al-Hashimi accused al-Maliki of torturing his bodyguards and other Sunnis in secret

Working in the unintentional unison that independent networks are susceptible to during netwar, Iraqiya used the bombings to call for al-Maliki’s resignation in the event that he cannot deliver security to the country. "Reasons behind today's explosions are due to the absence of an efficient security system," the party said in a statement on Saturday. In a more coordinated effort, Iraqiya MP Ahmed al-Masari told Aswat al-Iraq that his party had established common ground with the National Alliance. Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr happens to control a significant share of the bloc’s seats through his Sadrist Movement, and he’s equally impatient with Iraq’s security environment.

"The dictator of the government is trying to make all the accomplishments as though they were his accomplishments,” Sadr said in a statement released on Friday, "and if he cannot he will try to hinder these accomplishments and erase them.”

Invading Iraq on false pretenses, with limited knowledge of the insurgency that was about to unfold, created a strategic error that cannot be reversed. The military and political factors of George Bush’s surge managed to deescalate the country from open civil war, but most non-military problems were left unresolved for al-Maliki’s future government. The Obama administration then compounded these errors by reducing its political attention and backing an authoritarian personality to lead Iraq’s democratic transition. Now Tehran might possess more control of al-Maliki than Washington, and America isn’t winning back any popularity with his performance.

“The end” of Iraq’s war is fading deeper into obscurity.

These developments are unacceptable from a COIN standpoint and demonstrate the vast limitations of counter-terrorism. If former U.S. diplomats are correct in their assessment that Washington now wields negligible influence in Iraq, al-Maliki’s government won’t be able to halt the country’s destabilization without extensive political and security reforms. Expiring influence with Iraqiya poses dilemma, but the urgent problem is backing al-Maliki into a genuine power-sharing agreement. Even then, his authoritarian tendencies must be curtailed before Baghdad can grow a democracy, build an economy and focus on internal enemies. Promises of U.S. aid or military hardware stand a low chance of affecting al-Maliki’s behavior and a high chance of insulting Iraqis. Leaving U.S. troops behind wouldn’t solve these problems either.

What’s needed is blunt political pressure on al-Maliki - a real threat to cooperate or stand down - before the situation reaches an irreversible breaking point.

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