This is the first in a two-part series of articles on Iraq and where we go from here.
General Soleimani is dead as are a number of leaders of Iran’s various Shia militia, whose job it is to extend Iran’s hegemony over Iraq and help transform Iraq into a client state. Iraqis in large numbers have celebrated Soleimani’s death. Iraqis in large numbers have appeared to mourn his demise. The same can be said of Iranians. Meanwhile, the Iraqi parliament, the legislative body of the government of our ally, Iraq, has responded to our killing of Soleimani by demanding that all U.S. troops leave the country.
The average American would be justified in being befuddled. Why is anyone celebrating the death of a terrorist? Why is the government of Iraq, a nation we just saved from ISIS, demanding our troops go home? How did the Iranians come to train, equip and control what amount to private, pro-Tehran armies, inside the sovereign nation of Iraq?
To understand where we are we need to rewind the tape a bit. Let’s start in 2003.
2003 Invasion of Iraq
In 2003 we invaded Iraq to depose Saddam Hussein the brutal dictator who controlled that nation. We justified the invasion on the grounds of Saddam’s supposed WMD (Weapons of Mass Destruction) programs, but more broadly the invasion was based on the assessment that Saddam was a threat to regional stability, an evil man and he needed to go.
The invasion was spectacularly successful. American forces overran the country in a matter of weeks. Baghdad fell. Saddam went into hiding – slinking from safehouse to safehouse to avoid capture.
Then the problems began
Iraq is in many ways an artificial nation, the creation of the British and French after World War I. Look on old Ottoman maps, and you will search in vain for any such place. What you will find historically – speaking in great generality – are three distinct regions or provinces.
The west of the nation is inhabited by Sunni Arabs, the south and east by Shia Arabs, the north by Kurds. None of these groups care much for each other. They lived together under Saddam only because he held them together through sheer brute force.
We invaded. We deposed Saddam. Acting in apparent complete ignorance of Iraqi history and in contradiction of every intelligence report ever sent to Washington, D.C., we disbanded the Iraqi military, fired every government worker in the country and dedicated ourselves to building a government of national unity, under which all Iraqis would live together in peace and harmony.
We took the lid off a pressure cooker. It boiled over.
Civil War Ensues
What ensued was a spectacularly bloody civil war with Sunnis and Shia fighting each other in the streets and the U.S. Army trapped in between combatting both and attempting to restore order. Miraculously, in what must be one of the great feats of arms in modern times, we succeeded.
Iraq was welded back together, but this time it was American military power, not Saddam, keeping it intact.
Enter Barack Obama and ISIS
Enter Barack Obama whose only constant foreign policy principle seems to have been anti-Americanism. He ordered all but a handful of our troops home.
All hell broke loose again. The Shia, now dominant in the government in Baghdad, pursued anti-Sunni policies designed to crush that group’s political power. The predictable happened. Sunni Arabs rose up again, and in the chaos that ensued, ISIS, formerly Al Qaida in Iraq, exploded in power and influence.
The speed and power with which ISIS spread across the Middle East made it impossible for us to ignore. We had just finished pulling most of our forces out of Iraq. Now we surged them back – focused this time on crushing ISIS to the exclusion of all else.
Ignoring Iran and Iranian influence
In particular, as we combatted ISIS, we chose for the sake of convenience and short term gain, to ignore the growing Iranian influence in Iraq and its long term implications.
As fast as we entered Iraq in 2003, the Iranians came in too. Year after year, as we surged troops, withdrew troops, vacillated and contradicted ourselves, the Iranians held course. They bought influence in the Shia community. They used strong-arm tactics against those who would not bend to their will. They funded, trained and armed Shia militia – clones of Hezbollah – to be their muscle on the ground.
During the height of the civil war that followed the 2003 invasion, we openly confronted these Shia militias. We never destroyed them, nor did we ever adopt a policy of ripping out the Iranian intelligence and covert action apparatus inside Iraq. The Iranians remained patient, all the while expanding the scope of their activities and their reach.
Crushing ISIS while increasing Iran’s power
Our offensive against ISIS crushed that group in Iraq. It also dramatically increased Iran’s power in Iraq. Under Barack Obama, we adopted a de facto policy of working in tandem with the Iranians to destroy ISIS. U.S. Army and Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps personnel sometimes operated out of the same Iraqi command posts, and everyone acted like this was normal. Soleimani, perhaps the world’s most dangerous terrorist, came and went with impunity.
Where are we now?
It is 2020. ISIS is, at least for now, defeated, but we have paid an awful price for our lack of any consistent, coherent policy in Iraq. As far as Tehran is concerned, we have served our purpose. It is time for us to go. Iraq will now complete its transformation into a puppet state.
We are not condemned to hand Iraq over to Iran or to continue to commit the mistakes of the past. There are ways forward for the U.S., but they will require that we replace our myopic, reflexive approach of the past two decades with one predicated on a coherent, geopolitical strategy.
In the next installment, the way ahead.