Iraqis fear their turn will come after Afghanistan
Iraqis fear their turn will come after Afghanistan
In the aftermath of the US withdrawal from Afghanistan, Iraqis worry about what it would mean for a similar withdrawal from Iraq leading to a power grab by Iranian militias, the resurgence of the Islamic State, or a possible civil war. Similarities between the two cases include intense patronage politics and militia intimidation, but Baghdad has advantages that could help it avoid the fate of Kabul.
Perhaps the Iraqi people are the most shocked by the disaster in Afghanistan. He fears, more than anyone else, that his country will face a similar fate.
Even before the U.S. withdrawal turned into the complete collapse of the Afghan state and the complete takeover of power by the Taliban, many Iraqis I spoke to during my visit there in July and August were deeply concerned about what the impending U.S. withdrawal from Iraq might mean. Will the United States end the presence of its 2,500 troops in Iraq as well? And if so, will this lead to a power grab by Iranian militias, the resurgence of the Islamic State, or a possible civil war?
The scenes of despair that prevailed at Kabul airport on the 15th of August aroused a sense of repetition of previous scenes and anxiety among Iraqis. It reminded them of how the Iraqi army and police, trained and equipped by the United States, collapsed in 2014 when they lost three provinces to the Islamic State (ISIS). The United States withdrew from Iraq in 2011, but was forced to return to it to stop the invasion of ISIS and its massacres of Iraqis. The Iraqis also fear renewed discussions in Washington and Baghdad regarding the complete US withdrawal from Iraq. As in 2011, Iran is pressuring the Iraqi government to demand that US forces leave the country. As was the case at the time, Washington may be more than willing to comply.
It is easy to list the parallels between Iraq and Afghanistan. Like Afghanistan, the government of Iraq is divided and prioritizes patronage politics over the efficient governance of competent security forces and other government services. Even the Iraqi government and the collapsed Afghan government competed for the title of the most corrupt government. As in Afghanistan, the Iraqi government and the Iraqi army are unwilling to stand up to the unruly militias that threaten Iraq’s sovereignty and stability and attack Iraqis. As in Afghanistan, it is not a question of ability but of political will—US officials complain that Baghdad commands the region’s top-tier counter-terrorism apparatus, but only deploys it against the Islamic State, not against the militias. Despite popular and international pressure, these thug militias, like the Taliban, are more than willing to patiently strive for power.
Many also fear that the debate in Baghdad about withdrawal – spurred by Iran – will find an open door in Washington, not least because the team that withdrew from Iraq in 2011 has returned to the White House. Iraqis worry about the Biden administration’s ability to deal with a militia-led Iraqi government if the latter stops attacking American interests. Many Iraqis fear the repercussions of the administration’s deadline to withdraw American combat forces from Iraq by the end of 2021. To be sure, Washington’s shifting priorities and Iraq’s fatigue are not just the Democratic Party’s stance. It was the Trump administration that threatened to close the US embassy in Baghdad after increased militia attacks on US military and diplomatic staff.
Despite these real and perceived similarities, Iraq is of course an entirely different country, giving it a chance to avoid the fate of Afghanistan. And unlike Afghanistan, Iraq has a history of strong national institutions. There is bipartisan support in the United States to continue the path in Iraq, and to lead the anti-IS coalition to prevent the return of the terrorist group, and to strengthen economic relations. In addition, the United States cannot ignore the threat that Iran’s expansionist agenda in Iraq poses to the region. Regardless of U.S. interests, Iraq has a better chance of curbing militia rule given the domestic counterweights to Iranian influence—among them the popular protest movement; The outspoken Iraqi Shiite leadership in Najaf worried about losing religious authority to the clerics in Iran’s religious capital, Qom; Kurdistan’s leaders fear that they will be the next target of the militias after the Sunni provinces. Unlike the Taliban, the various Iraqi militias lack unified leadership and nationwide acceptance. In addition, the success of the US mission against the Islamic State and Al-Qaeda in Syria depends on the US presence in Iraq.
However, it is possible that Iraq will follow Afghanistan’s lead unless both Iraq and the United States reset their relations. The first thing to do in this regard is to preserve, but also diversify, the counter-terrorism character of US commitments in Iraq. As long as US-Iraqi relations depend on the number of US military personnel, Iran and its proxies will aspire to end the relationship by forcing those forces to withdraw. The militias have proven their capabilities and will continue their attacks against the American presence, because they know that the United States lacks patience and deterrence.
The resilience of US-Iraqi relations requires changing the focus towards investing in building the military and institutional capabilities of the Iraqi security forces to combat terrorism and for other purposes. Capacity, not timeline, should be the criterion for progression. In addition, in order to be able to perform such a task, the US presence in Iraq must be depoliticized. It is necessary for Washington to declare clearly that re-arranging its military presence in Iraq as a mission to provide advice and assistance, will not mean abandoning Iraq. It is also very important for the Iraqi people to feel the benefits of this relationship in areas such as trade, health care and education. A series of strategic dialogues between the United States and Iraq have sought to achieve such a goal.
Moreover, Washington should not allow the Iraqi government to shirk its responsibilities. And the Iraqis may find some comfort in knowing that Biden does not seem willing to risk the appearance of scenes from “Baghdad International Airport” similar to those we saw in Kabul. However, US priorities are essentially shifting away from the greater Middle East, and the burden is first and foremost on the Iraqi government to take responsibility and invest in a strong relationship with the United States. Fighting terrorism alone will not suffice to preserve the relationship. U.S. messages should be clear: Moving its mission from a combat role to an advisory role does not mean that the United States is abandoning its commitments to Iraq or its campaign against the Islamic State, but that the 2,500 military advisors will solidify U.S.-Iraq relations. They will point to the continued support of the international community and “NATO” for Iraq.
After Afghanistan, Iraqi leaders may complain that the United States has become an unreliable partner. However, seeking to replace it with other patrons—whether it be Iran, Turkey, or another country—will only deepen Iraq’s dependence on less reliable partners. Instead, Iraqis should set their sights on Baghdad for government reform. Finally, the setback in Afghanistan is a reminder that Washington, Baghdad, and Erbil must acknowledge rampant Iraqi corruption as a real challenge to national security—not just a negative side effect of the democratic transition. Therefore, Washington should demand accountability for the money and equipment it provides to the Iraqi security forces and the Kurdish Peshmerga.