Why the US is still stuck in Iraq
The interminable occupation of Iraq exposes the crazy idea that Western forces can liberate foreign peoples.
It is over eight years since that iconic statue of former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein was pulled to the floor in Baghdad by a US military vehicle. It is also over eight years since then US president George W Bush felt confident enough to declare a coalition victory. And yet, eight years on, eight years after Saddam was toppled, eight years after a US military spokesman announced that ‘much of Iraq is free from years of repression’, 48,000 US troops are still there. What’s more, if recent reports are to be believed, at least a portion will remain there well into the future. All this despite President Obama promising that US troops would be home by the beginning of 2012. All this, moreover, despite his predecessor standing on the deck of the USS Abraham Lincoln on 1 May 2003 and declaring the war in Iraq won.
The ongoing travails of Iraq, not to mention the lingering debacle of the US-led, UK-in-tow war there, have seemingly become too mundane to mention anymore. They shouldn’t be of course. Quite the opposite: the situation in Iraq ought to stand as a stark reminder of the inexorable folly of interventionism. Perhaps that is precisely why Iraq, so long the centre of the West’s world news, is now so peripheral. As seemingly clueless Western powers now find themselves embroiled in yet another foreign adventure, this time in Libya, it’s hardly surprising that the wretched legacy of the last intervention needs repressing.
And what a legacy it is. According to diplomatic cables released by Wikileaks last October, the US authorities were putting the war-related death toll as of March 2009 at 109,000. Of those fatalities, nearly 4,000 were from coalition forces, about 15,000 from the Iraqi national forces and 24,000 were so-called insurgents. The vast majority – 66,000, in fact – were civilians. Add to that a ruined infrastructure, in which power cuts are quotidian and health services devastated, and so-called post-war Iraq is far from the promised land of Operation Iraqi Freedom (to give it the coalition’s official title).
While blanking the miserable reality of Iraq after the West got stuck in might be easier for the government of America’s major coalition partner the UK, which ceased combat operations in April 2009, it is more difficult for the US. Not only are nearly 50,000 American soldiers still stationed there, it now looks more than possible that there could be a US presence in Iraq long past the original withdrawal date later this year. If this was looking likely last week, after the Iraqi government announced that it would begin talks about keeping a limited US training force in the country, it was looking even more so after 13 coordinated bomb attacks across Iraq on Sunday left at least 89 dead and 300 wounded. According to the Guardian, ‘many [Iraqi] MPs… fear the future without the safety blanket of well-armed and better-trained soldiers on call for any crisis’.
In some ways, the seemingly interminable involvement of the US in Iraq is the most telling aspect of the coalition’s post-war legacy. For it speaks of the most profound consequence of all self-styled liberal or humanitarian interventions. That is, in the act of attempting to determine the future of another people, that people’s capacity for self-determination is negated. And in the people’s stead, the external power, whether it intended to or not – and the US did not – ends up attempting to manage the people’s affairs, even trying to determine who ought to be the government.
This was especially apparent in Iraq. The coalition’s removal of Saddam not only removed an undoubtedly nasty tyrant, it also removed virtually the sole cohering force, albeit authoritarian, in Iraqi society. In the wake of this putative liberation, paradoxically carried out on behalf of Iraqis by an occupying force, there was no popular, social force just waiting to assume power. There was just a vacuum. And it was the attempt to fill this vacuum, this absence of authority, of aspirant sovereignty, that led the coalition forces, and ultimately the US, to assume proxy control, all the while desperately trying to construct some form of half-legitimate government. Even if its leaders, from London-based Ayad Allawi to the present prime minister and long-term exile Nouri al-Maliki, had barely had any contact with Iraqi society for decades.
The vacuum was not just an invitation for foreign powers to take up the reins of Iraqi society, it also opened it up to all sorts of local grievances. And so, for the past eight years, a minority civil war has been waged in which an assortment of Sunni and Shia groups, some claiming al-Qaeda affiliations, some not, launched bomb spectaculars and petty power grabs. Admittedly, while events of recent days show that what is wrongly called an ‘insurgency’ is far from over, it is nowhere near as volatile as it was in 2006 and 2007. In 2006, for instance, 73 people were dying each day from bombings and shootings. By 2010, the average was about 11 a day, a figure that’s similar this year.
But while this internal civil war has ebbed to a degree, the power vacuum that lay at its heart continues to draw in external, foreign agents. Some observers currently suggest that the head of Iran’s elite military organisation al-Quds, Qassem Suleimani, is using client militias, both Shia and Sunni, as leverage in Iraqi affairs for his own country’s benefit. As Iraq’s former national security minister, Mowaffak al-Rubaie, told the newspaper Al-Sharq al-Awsat in July 2010: ‘[Suleimani] is the most powerful man in Iraq without question – nothing gets done without him.’ Elsewhere the director general of the intelligence division in Iraq’s interior ministry, Hussein Kamal, is more circumspect when suggesting Iranian involvement: ‘There has been a systematic flow of weapons into Iraq for the past eight years. Of course they try to say it is not state-sponsored. But when weapons are flowing from the borders of a sovereign state, it is very clear where the blame lies.’
But the point remains. In the act of intervention, in the act of taking up the affairs of another people, the intervening agent, whether wearing the light-blue helmets of the UN or Green Berets of the US special forces, deprives that people of the chance to forge their own future. And in the case of Iraq it created both massive internal instability and the chance for other external agents to pursue their own opportunistic interests.
Of course there have been attempts to give the Iraqi people some degree of sovereignty, most notably in the two general elections of 2005 and 2010. But the elections also underscored just how little societal coherence there is in Iraq. For example, last year, around 6,200 candidates stood for 325 parliamentary seats. In total, that meant that about 90 different factions were battling it out. This was a mark less of democratic vitality than of the sheer fragmentation of post-war Iraqi society. Yes, there were three main parties, but of the State of Law Coalition, the mainly Shia Iraqi National Alliance, and the consistently anti-sectarian Iraqi National Movement, none gained more than a third of the vote. A popular movement, a groundswell of solidarity, one that might manifest itself in a popular government, was striking by its absence.
More worryingly – and here we get to the nub of the matter – the Iraqi government, and its unpopular prime minister Nouri al-Maliki, a man who gained just a quarter of Iraq’s parliamentary seats, now seem incapable of garnering enough popular support to cohere Iraqi society. It is more than symbolic that a blast wall separates the ministers and their residences in Baghdad’s Green Zone from those whom they supposedly represent. It marks the literal divide between Iraq’s political class – some parachuted in from outside Iraq after Saddam’s fall, others hanging over from Hussein’s ascendancy – from an embattled populace. That Iraq has also had its own ‘Days of Rage’ this spring, despite its putative democracy, is revealing. Likewise, the response, in which tens of protesters were killed and journalists beaten up, is equally as revealing as to the state of this democracy
Lacking the popular support that would legitimate his rule, Maliki seems to be hunkering down. Which is very easy for him given that he directly controls key security services, including the Baghdad Operations Command, an organisation tasked with dealing with anything deemed a threat to the state. A Guardian interview with an intelligence officer in Baghdad 2009 paints an unsettling picture: ‘Maliki is running a dictatorship – everything is run by his office and advisers, he is surrounded by his party and clan members. They form a tight knot that is running Iraq now. He is not building a country, he is building a state for his own party and his own people.’ Little wonder the International Crisis Group’s assessment identified ‘the main threat to the political order’ as emanating not from ‘an organised insurgency that wishes to topple it and oust the occupiers’, but ‘from within: the fractured nature of society and the political class which in turn promotes the security forces’ fragmentation and politicisation.’ More worrying still are the reports that security forces controlled by Maliki have taken to running secret prisons.
Which brings us back to America’s role in all this. Although the US administration emotionally withdrew from Iraq after the photo-op victory eight years ago, it remains militarily tied to the country by dint of the power vacuum it also created eight years ago. The current Iraqi regime, itself a product of that intervention, needs the external support of the US, because it lacks genuine ties with the only real source of democratic sovereignty – the people. ‘We did vote for them’, an old man in Baghdad’s Tahrir Square told the Economist this February, ‘but they’re gangsters’. And it’s the absence of the people whom the fall of Saddam was supposed to magically liberate that has left the US still, in part, the determining force in Iraq.
The lesson of Iraq, of living with the brutal consequences of an intervention, should have been stark. But due to the willful amnesia of Western governments and their media cheerleaders, crouched excitedly behind their laptops, this lesson has not been learnt. And so into Libya they have stumbled, posturing, dangerous and utterly complacent.
Tim Black is senior writer at spiked.