“We are going to bring this war to an end,”President Obama,barely a month in office, said in February 2009. Despite what he and many other Americans seemed to think, the war in Iraq wasn’t over as that year came to a close. Bombings and deaths declined but hardly stopped, with smaller blasts routinely killing Americans and Iraqis in Mosul, Tall Afar, Ramadi, Fallujah, and Kirkuk, in addition to some spectacular explosions in central Baghdad. In late 2009, there were still 117,000 U.S. troops in Iraq, close to the average American commitment under the Bush administration from 2003 to 2006. The president plans to halve that number during the first six months of 2010, but my sense is that that remains more an aspiration than a certainty.
In July, Col. Timothy Reese, an Army officer based in Baghdad, wrote a memorandum that amounted to a pretty good summary of the state of the politics of Iraq:
The ineffectiveness and corruption of GOI [government of Iraq] Ministries is the stuff of legend. The anti-corruption drive is little more than a campaign tool for Maliki. The GOI is failing to take rational steps to improve its electrical infrastructure and to improve their oil exploration, production and exports. There is no progress towards resolving the Kirkuk situation. Sunni Reconciliation is at best at a standstill and probably going backwards. Sons of Iraq (SOI) or Sahwa transition to ISF [Iraqi security forces] and GOI civil service is not happening, and SOI monthly paydays continue to fall further behind. The Kurdish situation continues to fester. Political violence and intimidation is rampant in the civilian community as well as military and legal institutions. The Vice President received a rather cool reception this past weekend and was publicly told that the internal affairs of Iraq are none of the U.S.’s business.
Caring about the internal affairs of Iraq certainly has become less an American preoccupation, by any measure. To a surprising degree, since the departure of Gen. David Petraeus in September 2008 and his replacement by Gen. Raymond Odierno, the Mesopotamian conflict became a war hiding in plain sight. It was increasingly difficult to track what was happening, because the international media was less engaged, having trimmed its Baghdad presence for two major reasons—first, events there were deemed less newsworthy, and second, because the journalism business was in collapse, under financial pressure even before the Great Recession of 2008 began. A third and lesser reason for the lack of coverage was that even though security had improved somewhat, reporters didn’t feel able to move about freely. The violence in Iraq, oddly enough, as a running story had migrated from the front pages to the local sections of newspapers, where it was covered as something that occasionally killed soldiers from a given area.
The result was that large parts of the country seemed to go off the radar screen. It was hard to know what was happening just west of Baghdad in al Anbar Province. There were numerous bombings and attacks on police there, but who was doing them and why was hard to know. In the south, Basra had always been a bit of a mystery during the war but in 2009 became even more veiled. This especially struck me because I suspect that the government of Iran covets Basra more than it does Baghdad. Influence in the capital may be prestigious, but it also promises to be a continual headache as Iraqi factions shift and split. Basra, the biggest city in the south, sitting atop the Persian Gulf, is a more straightforward proposition: Control it and one has a hold over much of Iraq’s foreign revenue. And because that money derives from the export of oil, one may also be able to regulate the size of the outward flow of that commodity, which would help Iran’s position in the world oil markets.
The U.S. military presence didn’t shrink as much as the media’s, but its operational presence was sharply curtailed. With the pullback from smaller outposts into big bases, the U.S. Army’s feel for the situation seemed to grow less sure. I noticed this not only in official statements but also in e-mails I got from soldiers in the field. One infantry officer wrote to me that during his time in Baghdad in 2009, he was struck by the comment that Ambassador Ryan Crocker made at the end of the hardcover edition of this book, that the events for which the Iraq war would be remembered have not yet happened. “This is quite true,” the officer told me, “and the troubling fact is that these events are going on right now and we don’t even know what to do about them.” In addition, there seemed to be new friction between the U.S. military headquarters and the U.S. embassy, with the soldiers wanting to intervene as they had in the past, but the diplomats arguing that it was time to take American hands off and let Iraq find its own course.
So what course is Iraq on? It is possible to be overly pessimistic about Iraq. I made that error in the early spring of 2009, because I thought that the deals that General Petraeus and Ambassador Crocker had cut with Iraqi politicians and insurgents during the surge era were beginning to unravel quickly. My worries peaked in March, when fighting broke out in the streets of Baghdad between “former Sunni insurgents” and Iraqi government forces. During the surge, the Sunni fighters had entered into a cease-fire, not a surrender, keeping their weapons and organizations and even in some cases their areas of operation. After the surge, as the Americans tried to turn over security functions to Iraqi forces, some of these people went back into violent opposition. American units were dispatched to support the Iraqi forces fighting these erstwhile enemies turned allies turned enemies again. This is how the Washington Post described one of those springtime confrontations:
As Apache helicopter gunships cruised above Baghdad’s Fadhil neighborhood, former Sunni insurgents fought from rooftops and street corners against American and Iraqi forces, according to witnesses, the Iraqi military and police. At least 15 people were wounded in the gunfights, which lasted several hours. By nightfall, the street fighters had taken five Iraqi soldiers hostage.
Despite such incidents, security didn’t deteriorate as quickly as I thought it would, and instead the confrontations between the Sons of Iraq and Iraqi forces tailed off. Then, in late June, when American troops closed outposts in the cities and moved back to big bases, there was a spate of bombings and other violence, with a series of blasts against Christian churches. But again the violence seemed to decline somewhat. Sunni and Shiite militias didn’t start re-emerging, as many Iraqis feared—and as I did, having seen Iraq in 2006—when there was a small civil war in and around Baghdad.
Yet much worry remains just under the surface, especially among Iraqis in sensitive positions. As the Americans pulled back, people who had allied with them at the local level expressed alarm. “I never expected we’d come to this point,” Hassan Shama, the head of a “district council” in Baghdad’s Sadr City, told a reporter. “The U.S. Army and the U.S. Embassy have abandoned us. After six years of very hard work, we’re worthless. They call us agents, spies for the Americans.” Such fear is noteworthy especially because it is expressed while the American military still maintains a large presence in the country. The apprehension is likely to grow in 2010 if the Obama administration is able to draw down as planned, with more than ten thousand troops leaving every month from spring through late summer.
The best answers of the future of the security situation have been offered in two forward-looking analyses, one by an American, the other by an Iraqi. The first, by Adam Silverman, who in 2008 served as a political adviser to a brigade of the 1st Armored Division on the outskirts of Baghdad, found several indicators that the central government was not taking the steps necessary to bind it to the people. Shiite sheikhs as well as Sunni ones perceived the central government as a subsidiary of the Iranian government. “Even by Shia . . . the members of it are viewed as either Iranian agents or Iranians,” he wrote.
Also, Silverman wrote, the central government wasn’t providing services, and so was disconnected from the tribes. “The lack of tethering . . . of governmental structures to the most powerful socio-cultural dynamic in Iraq, the tribal system, is worrying.” This lack threatened to undo the political gains of the surge era, he warned. “The concern is that unless the population layer, which is tribally oriented, is fully activated and brought into the mix, the hard work, grounded in the COIN [counterinsurgency] reality of empowering the lowest levels . . . will fail.” Silverman also concluded that the two groups enjoying broad indigenous support were the former insurgents known as the Sons of Iraq and the Sadrists. These groups—one Sunni, the other Shiite—are bitter foes. Their commonalities are their inclination to use violence and their anti-Americanism. This certainly wasn’t where the U.S. government had placed its bets.
The second discussion was by Najim Abed al-Jabouri, the former mayor of Tall Afar, the northwestern Iraqi town that saw the first major successful sustained counterinsurgency campaign in the war. In a different place than Silverman and with a very different perspective, he came to a remarkably similar set of conclusions. In contrast to American views of the Iraqi security forces, or ISF, he wrote, “Iraqi assessments suggest that without separating the ISF from the incumbent ethno-sectarian parties, the ISF will be a tool for creating instability in the country. Iraqis realize that the reasons and justifications for a civil war are still at play in Iraq.” In other words, the Iraqi military and police were not a force for stability any more than the politicians were.
A major reason that the army and police were likely to fracture the country, al-Jabouri continued, was that political meddling had created a divisive situation within those forces. “The majority of [Iraqi army] divisions are under the patronage of a political party,” he asserted. Unusually, he then listed the political affiliations of various units: the 8th Iraqi Army division in Kut and Diwaniya was heavily influenced by the Dawa party, the 4th Division in Salahudeen was under the sway of Iraqi President Jalal Talabani’s Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, the 7th Division was responsive to the Iraqi Awakening Party, and the 5th division in Diyala heeded the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq. It was as if the U.S. Army’s 82nd Airborne cleared its movements with Nancy Pelosi, the 101st Airborne vetted its orders with John McCain, and the 4th Infantry Division was hard-over libertarian or dominated by Texas separatists. Similarly, al-Jabouri added, many of the forces of the Ministry of Interior actually operated beyond the control of that ministry and instead reported to political parties. Officers who blow the whistle on the influence wielded by political parties over Iraqi army units risk losing their personal security guards as well as their jobs, he noted.
Listening to this veteran of the Iraqi military and politics, I think the security situation is worse than it appears from a distance, and the slow unraveling of 2009 is likely to accelerate in 2010 as American’s sway wanes and Iraqis vie for post-American power.
By contrast, I think Iranian influence, already powerful, will grow. Iran is the big winner in this war, as I said at the end of the hardcover edition of this book. “They have run circles around us since the beginning and now they are really in charge,” agreed Alexander Lemons, the Marine sergeant who was unusually involved in Basra and other parts of the south.
It is striking to me how uneasy American officials are about discussing the Iranian role in Iraq. This is not because they know so much that is classified, but rather, I think, because the facts of the matter make them uncomfortable: Iran has been empowered by the American invasion of Iraq and the capture and hanging of Saddam Hussein, who led Iraq in eight years of war with Iran, from 1980 to 1988. The Americans transferred much power in Iraq from the Sunnis to the Shiites, who are not universally allies of the government in Tehran but are certainly closer to it than was the Baath Party.
A veteran Iraqi intelligence official interviewed by Washington Post columnist David Ignatius in mid-2009 predicted that in five years, “Iraq will be a colony of Iran.”
A few weeks after his first e-mail, that infantry officer who had written to me on his return from a year of fighting in western Baghdad sent me a note that came to the same conclusion. “When I was in Iraq,” he wrote,
I read a bunch of books to include Robert Baer’s The Devil We Know, which is about Iran’s growing influence in the Mideast. Baer’s first two sentences in Chapter 2, ‘How Iran Beat America,’ are: ‘Iraq is lost. Iran won it.’ Given what we’ve seen in classified reports and in the revolving door of Iraqi army commanders in select Baghdad neighborhoods, his thesis is spot on. Plus, Shia militiamen have melted into the army and police over the past few years making it much easier for them to create Shia havens throughout the city. It’ll be interesting to see where Baghdad is in about 5 years.
Anyone who still talks of an American “victory” in Iraq should be asked to address this question: For many years to come, the government in Baghdad is not likely to be stable or very democratic, but almost certainly it will be closer to Tehran than to Washington. What part of that constitutes success for the U.S. government?
2010: HOW THIS DOESN’T END
The national elections scheduled for early in 2010 will tell us a lot about Iraq’s direction, especially in the two to three months after the actual voting. One of the most acute observers of the Iraq war, British defense analyst Toby Dodge, notes that it is clear in retrospect that the national elections of 2005 “actually hastened Iraq’s descent into civil war.” An additional complication will come if, as is widely expected, Defense Secretary Robert Gates steps down in late spring 2010, depriving the Obama administration of its only top official who has dealt closely for several years with the intricacies of the situation.
In stable countries, elections tend to be the end of contention and the beginning of compromise. That isn’t the case in Iraq, where there tends to be a “winner take all” mentality. This is how New York Times reporter Alissa Rubin put it recently as she left Iraq after years of living in Baghdad:
... Army checkpoints—legal ones—are the only ones that stop you, but huge posters of Imam Ali punctuate the streets, a signal that this is now Shiite-land. Imam Ali is revered as a founder of the Shiite branch of Islam, but a poster of him is also a silent rebuke to Sunnis, a way of marking territory, of reminding them that the Shiites run things now. It is a sign of victory as much as peace.
And victory in Iraq almost always begets revenge.
In my five years in Iraq, all that I wanted to believe in was gunned down.
Sunnis and Shiites each committed horrific crimes, and the Kurds, whose modern-looking cities and Western ways seemed at first so familiar, turned out to be capable of their own brutality.
I thought about this observation when a small firefight broke out in Baqubah between Iraqi soldiers and police officers in November 2009. It was a minor, murky affair, and I couldn’t determine what provoked it. But I wondered if it was a portent of the Iraq of 2010. A few weeks later, when thirteen people affiliated with an Iraqi political leader in eastern Anbar province were murdered, the vice president of Iraq charged that the slaughter had been carried out by Iraqi soldiers.
President Obama’s troop withdrawal plan will be hostage to the behavior of Iraqis during the aftermath of the election. It is possible that things will go quietly—after all, they went better in the spring and summer of 2009 than I thought they would. If Iraq indeed is quiet in 2010, then the American pullout likely will be able to proceed as planned, with a swift drawdown in the first half of the year. But if Iraq reverts to form and the security situation appears to be unraveling quickly, then it will be difficult to maintain pace of the planned pullout. That would be doubly difficult for American policymakers because it likely would mean that there aren’t enough troops available for the parallel and intensifying effort in Afghanistan.
It would be even tougher for Iraqis. As one longtime observer, Joost Hilter-mann of International Crisis Group, put it,
. . . just as Odierno will be pulling out his first combat brigades, starting in March, Iraq will be entering into a period of fractious wrangling over the formation of a new government. If Iraqi national forces fail to impose their control, an absence of political leadership could thus coincide with a collapse in security; if politicians and their allied militias resort to violence, the state, including its intelligence apparatus so critical for maintaining internal stability, could fracture along political, ethnic, and sectarian lines.
For those reasons, I suspect 2010 may come to rival as a turning point two earlier times in this war—2003, when the invasion occurred and gave rise to an insurgency, and 2007, when the American military finally became effective in its operations in Iraq.
The basic problem facing Iraq is that all the problems that have divided Iraqis for many years are still hanging fire, unresolved and threatening to lead to renewed fighting. Pessimists argue that Iraqi politicians have learned how to use this turbulence to further their own goals. “Perhaps the biggest challenge,” warned security analyst Michael Eisenstadt,
is that key political parties have successfully exploited ethnosectarian grievances as a means of mobilizing support. These parties have a vested interest in perpetuating the political status quo and would stand to lose a great deal if a post-sectarian style of politics in Iraq were to emerge as a result of a successful reconciliation process.
In other words, they now have a stake in perpetuating violence and tradition. Peace and stability threaten their positions of power and influence. So the real question, I think, is not whether there will be violence in Iraq for many years to come, but how severe the violence will be, and how disruptive to neighboring countries.
So, to once more evoke General Petraeus’s famous question during the invasion of Iraq about eight years ago, How does this end? I think the question was best answered over the last year by his successor as the top American commander in Iraq, Gen. Odierno, who said one day in Baghdad that
it’s not going to end, okay? There’ll always be some sort of a low-level insurgency in Iraq for the next five, 10, 15 years. The issue is, what is the level of that insurgency? And can the Iraqis handle it with their own forces and with their government? That’s the issue.
That indeed is the issue, and is the reason that we are likely to see tens of thousands of American soldiers in Iraq for many years to come. The U.S. government may say they are not combat troops, and we may not pay attention to them. But they will be there.