It is all too tempting for the United States to focus on the current crisis over the clash between Iran and the United States in Iraq. Events have steadily escalated since late December. Iranian has sponsored attacks by Iraqi Popular Militia Forces on U.S. forces and facilities. The U.S. has launched retaliatory attacks on these PMFs. This has been followed by well-organized demonstrations and attacks on the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad and then by U.S. drone strikes that killed Qasem Solemani, the head of Iran’s Quds Force, and Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, the head of Al-Hashd al-Shaabi, an Iraqi militia group tied to Iran that had been linked to attacks on U.S. targets.
Moreover, the Iraqi central government had virtually collapsed even before these events. Its corruption, ineffectiveness, and failed economic policies had led to massive popular demonstrations. Its legislature virtually disbanded, and legislation was passed calling for a different, locally elected and more representative system. Prime Minister Mahdi had resigned and then stayed on in an uncertain “acting’ capacity. The Kurdish regional government remained divided, and the government failed to effectively aid the Sunni cities in the West that had been shattered in the fight with ISIS.
The central government’s Army and Air Force remained largely separate from. the Kurdish forces in the north, and efforts to integrate the various Shi’ite and Sunni Popular Militia Forces that had helped fight ISIS into the central government’s forces resulted in an unworkable system where these deeply divided PMFs – many with close ties to Iran – reported directly to a Prime Minister with no real authority and who had lost his popular mandate.
The United States faces an all too real risk that events in Iraq will trigger much more serious fighting between the U.S. and Iran in Iraq and the rest of the region, as well as major Iraqi hostility over its use of force in Iraq in spite of opposition by the Iraqi government. The United States has again slashed its official presence in Iraq, and the U.S. Ambassador has warned U.S. citizens to leave. At the same time, Iraq has no clear path towards unity, creating a workable political system and effective government, toward economic recovery and developed on the scale that is desperately limited. Coping with crisis of each given day often seems beyond America’s reach.
Snatching Defeat from the Jaws of Victory for the Third Time
At the same time, focusing on the current crisis has now led to consistent failures in U.S. strategy in dealing with Iraq and the Middle East for nearly two decades, and has already turned two apparent “victories” into real world defeats. From the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003 to the present, the U.S. has never had a workable grand strategy for Iraq, or any consistent plans and actions that have gone beyond current events.
The United States has never defined workable grand strategic objectives, made effective efforts to create a stable post-conflict Iraq, or shown the Iraq people its presence actually serves their interests. At the same time, the Department of Defense has reported that it spent over $765 billion on the Iraq conflict and fighting ISIS as of March 31, 2019, and this is only part of the direct cost of the fighting. There is no clear stream of reporting on State and USAID spending, but it seems to have reached another $100 billion.
The current Iraqi reaction to the U.S, military strikes in Iraq, and the success of attacks on the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad warn that the U.S. may now be on the edge of snatching defeat from the jaws of “victory” for the third time since 2003.
In round one, the United States invaded Iraq in 2003 to meet a non-existent threat of proliferation and drove Saddam Hussein from power. It scored a massive military victory with no plan for what would happen once Saddam was driven from power. The net impact was to remove Iraq’s military forces as a counterbalance to Iran, trigger deep sectarian conflict and ethnic divisions, and empower Sunni extremists and create a new war.
In round two, the U.S. and its allies ended up fighting these Islamic extremists from 2004 to 2010. The U.S. defeated these Sunni extremists in western Iraq with the aid of a massive surge of U.S. ground troops and the aid of Iraqi Sunni popular forces but failed to create a stable Iraqi government and economy. The U.S. effectively abandoned its nation building efforts after 2009 and withdrew its combat forces at the end of 2011 – creating a power vacuum that opened up Iraq to ISIS while it was never able to decide on any active strategy for stabilizing Iraq or dealing with the Syrian civil war. It focused on defeating ISIS – relying heavily on Syrian Kurds in the process – and scored another “victory” in 2016-2018 by disbanding the ISIS “caliphate.”
However, the United States never developed any meaningful plan for dealing with Iraq’s political and economic crises, for dealing with Syria, or even for dealing with the tens of thousands of ISIS prisoners its “victory” created. In the process, it opened up Syria to Russia, Iran, and Hezbollah. It partially rebuilt Iraq’s official military forces but saw Iran create powerful Popular Mobilization Forces tied to Iran and failed to ensure that most Iraqis saw the role U.S. advisors and airpower played in defeat ISIS, make any clear efforts to reform a failed Iraq government and boost its economy, or ensure that the populated areas shattered by the fighting would be rebuilt or receive effective aid.
Round three is still taking form, but no one can accuse the U.S. of having any coherent strategy for dealing with the fact Iraq’s political system has no cohesion, its government is hopelessly corrupt and ineffective, and its economy has been in a state of crisis and failed development since at least the beginning of the Iran-Iraq War in 1979. There is no real Iraq government, just an acting Prime Minister and a President with no real power.
The U.S. had some 5,200 advisors and train and assist forces trying to rebuild the Iraq military forces for the second time since 2003 but no clear plan for the future, has done nothing to convince Iraqis its efforts are in their interest, and has effectively abandoned any serious efforts at economic reform, stability, and growth. Iran has committed many errors of its own, but it clearly is seeking to push the U.S. out of Iraq and has strong ties to key militias and Shiite political movements. The U.S. has the bare shell of a full embassy, no clear plans to influence Iraq’s future, and the U.S. President talks about withdrawal and a level of victory over ISIS that never occurred.
More broadly, the United States has steadily lost the confidence its Arab strategic partners in the Gulf region. It ignored their advice in invading in 2003 and made Iran the dominant military power in the northern Gulf and Iraq a constant source of unstable weaknesses and concern. Beginning with President Obama, it has bullied them over burden sharing even when they were spending some 10% of their GDP on military forces and raised steadily growing questions about U.S. willingness to main its military role in the Gulf and support their security. It has sanctioned and provoked Iran without effectively deterring it or reacting to its military actions and seen Russia, Turkey, and China become steadily growing players in Gulf affairs, as well as seeing China create a major base and port facility in Djibouti. The United States talks a hardline against Iran without acting decisively on its words, and its President cannot seem to decide from week to week whether the U.S. is withdrawing or staying.
Iraq Is the Key Strategic Interest for U.S. Policy Action in the MENA Region as Both a Partner and Truly Independent State
The United States has already lost too much ground to have good options in Iraq and the Gulf, but it must at least avoid decisively losing round three. The Gulf is far too important to “leave,” particularly when leave means ceding it to an unpredictable mix of extremism civil conflict, failed states like Syria and Yemen, and Iran, Russia, China, and an Erdogan-led Turkey
There are all too many cases in the Middle East where the options are too bad for effective U.S. action unless unpredictable internal events radically change a given state. Libya, Syria, Lebanon, and Yemen have all become “failed states” that are highly unstable tragedies – with Algeria and Tunisia as possible new cases to be added to the list. At the same time, all have only tertiary priority in terms of U.S. strategy interests. Other strategic partners like Morocco, Egypt, and Jordan do have higher priority, but they do not face the same level of instability and threats, and they require less outside U.S. effort.
Iraq, however, is a different story. It has critical strategic priority in securing the Gulf, in counting Iran and extremism, and in ensuring the stable flow of global petroleum exports to meet the growing needs of the global economy. If the United States and its allies can prevent Iraq from becoming the “weak man of the Gulf” – or being dominated by Iran – the overall security of the Gulf will be relatively easy for the U.S. to secure if it can only make up its mind to stay in the Gulf and give the region its proper strategic priority
A strong and unified Iraq not only is the best practical defense against regional extremism, it becomes a critical buffer that limits Iran as a threat. Our Arab partners in the Arabian Peninsula and Israel will be relatively secure. In spite of our lack of any clear strategy in the White House, the U.S. military and USCENTCOM have already taken most of the other steps necessary to defend and deter against Iran. ISIS and extremism will remain as enduring threats but not at the strengths that require major new levels of U.S. attention if Iraq is capable resisting another division into Sunnis and Shi’ites and rise of Sunni extremism.
The report full text is available at https://www.csis.org/analysis/americas-failed-strategy-middle-east-losing-iraq-and-gulf