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Defeat in Iraq
Frederick W. Kagan, Kimberly Kagan and Marisa Cochrane Sullivan have a piece titled “Defeat in Iraq: President Obama’s decision to withdraw U.S. troops is the mother of all disasters,” in the Nov. 7, 2011 issue of The Weekly Standard.
“(Iraq is not Vietnam). Because, unlike Vietnam, Iraq is at the center of two of the most pressing national security challenges facing America today – the growth of Iranian power and the fight against al Qaeda and its affiliates. The United States left Vietnam, and some but not all of the dominoes in the region did fall, but Southeast Asia per se became ancillary to American national security after 1975 and has remained so to this day. The symbolism of U.S. defeat and retreat from South Vietnam was extremely important, to be sure, and continues to shape both American and international narratives of U.S. power and self-definition. But the facts on the ground there ceased to matter much to the United States after Saigon finally fell. In contrast, the Iranian offensive to overrun what the American counterinsurgency accomplished will look very different from the 1975 conventional offensive in Vietnam, and it has begun instantly, without even a decent interval. As a symbol, America’s withdrawal from Iraq will likely be similarly significant, but the facts on the ground in Iraq will continue to be centrally important to American national security for the foreseeable future. The United States can leave Iraq alone, but Iraq will not leave us alone.
“Two dramatic challenges to the security of the American homeland spring from the area around Mesopotamia – the threat of attack by terrorist groups, and the prospect of Iran’s acquisition of nuclear weapons. The recently revealed Quds Force plot to use Mexican drug cartels to conduct bombings on American soil demonstrates that the danger of terrorism emanating from the Middle East is cross-sectarian: Al Qaeda, primarily Sunni, is still in business, despite the administration’s premature claims of success, while Iranian agencies (like the Quds Force) and proxies, primarily Shiite, are becoming more potent and immediate threats to the American homeland.
“The U.S. abandonment of Iraq will almost certainly increase the sectarian violence that drove Iraq’s Sunni Arabs to welcome the support of Al Qaeda in Iraq fighters. The seeds of renewed sectarian conflict are already being sown, both by the efforts of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to build his Dawa party into something like a Shiite Baath party, and by indications that Sunni Arab leaders are rapidly losing faith that their participation in Iraq’s government can benefit or even protect their communities. The renewal of sectarian conflict will push both sides back toward the extremes, opening the way for Al Qaeda in Iraq to reestablish itself and for Iranian proxy groups to dig themselves even deeper into Iraq. This time there will be no American forces to resist these developments.
“U.S. strategy for preventing Iran’s acquisition of nuclear weapons, moreover, has relied almost entirely on economic sanctions. The Iran-Iraq border runs for more than 900 miles. Saddam Hussein was more than content to participate, informally and indirectly, in sanctions against Iran, a neighbor he had invaded in 1980 and fought until 1988. In 1990 he invaded Kuwait, embroiling himself in a 13-year conflict with the United States and its allies that imposed even harsher sanctions on Iraq than had been imposed on Iran. But since 2003, the presence in Iraq of more than 100,000 American troops – not to mention some of the most ruthless and vicious urban fighting and road-mining the world has seen in decades – prevented Iraq from being used as a major portal through which Iran could circumvent sanctions. Now, all of those conditions have vanished, and Iraqis have already made it clear that they do not feel bound by our sanctions against Iran. Any strategy that relies on the economic isolation of Iran, then, has just been thoroughly vitiated for the first time since Ayatollah Khomeini seized power (and American hostages) in 1979. Our defeat in Iraq will require a fundamental reevaluation of America’s strategy toward Iran.
“American national security strategy on a central front in two conflicts is now a smoking ruin. It may be some time before the full weight of this defeat is apparent in newspapers or on television. Its effects will be felt increasingly, however, as America’s leaders grapple with a rising and nuclearizing Iran and the reemergence of al Qaeda franchises in the Arab world.
“Many, most prominently the White House, now argue that this denouement was made inevitable by the misbehavior or unreasonableness of the Iraqis. That argument is not merely false, but also fundamentally obscures serious errors in the Obama administration’s policy toward Iraq. Those mistakes encouraged the failure of the negotiations to extend the U.S. troops presence, the failure of the Iraqi state, and the collapse of the fragile intersectarian accord that a great deal of blood had been shed to achieve. It is important to review the administration’s errors for the historical record and for an understanding of both the state-of-play within Iraq today and the trends that threaten to unravel American strategy throughout the Middle East.”
The Kagans and Ms. Sullivan then go into the failures of the 2010 parliamentary election in Iraq, a topic I covered extensively in my “Week in Review” columns. It is a travesty the way Nouri al-Maliki conducted the election, including the ban on nearly 500 candidates prior to the March 2010 vote, let alone the treatment of former prime Minister Ayad Allawi, a secular Shiite, whose Iraqiya alliance came in first in the voting but was then shut out of the eventual power sharing agreement.
It is also absurd, and tragic, that Prime Minister Maliki has made himself acting head of both the ministries of defense and the interior (the entire security apparatus), and the U.S. has allowed him to get away with this. The authors note that “Maliki is now arresting Iraqis simply for having been Baath party members under Saddam. This is exactly the kind of bid for exclusive Shiite control over the government that Iraq’s Sunni Arabs have long feared would come when the United States left.”
“America will pay a high price for defeat in Iraq. Our global credibility is seriously damaged – it is surely no accident that the weekend after President Obama announced that we were abandoning Iraq, President Hamid Karzai said that Afghanistan would stand with Pakistan against a U.S. attack. Why not? The Iranian and Pakistani narratives all along have been that the Americans will ultimately abandon their allies to their fate, while the neighbors will be around to exact revenge. President Obama has just reinforced that narrative before all the world.
“The United States will also pay a high moral price for this retreat. Tens of thousands of Iraqis sacrificed and put themselves and their families in enormous danger relying on the backing of the United States against our mutual enemies – al Qaeda and Iranian militias. The Maliki government, perhaps partially at the behest of the Quds Force, is now beginning to eliminate some of those people, and the trickle of blood and refugees will likely become a river. Yet another group of brave people who share America’s core values and risked their lives to fight with us will conclude bitterly that Americans can never be trusted.”