The Daily Star, August 28th.; 2010
M. Serajul Islam
US President Barak Obama made a historical statement on 2nd August. He announced that the US combat operations in Iraq would be over by August 31st that would end US's 7 years war in Iraq. His predecessor had signed an agreement with the Iraqi government that all US troops would come back by end of 2011. The incumbent President had penned an addition to that agreement that US would bring back all combat troops by 31st August of this year. Under that agreement 50,000 non-combat troops would remain in Iraq to train and assist Iraqi security forces and the rest of the 1,40,000 US troops, all involved in combat, would return home.
The subdued response in the United States to a historical decision to end combat operations and effectively US's war in Iraq is somewhat surprising. It reflects the fact that the troops are not returning home with victory won decisively. In fact, there are many who would question if a victory has been won at all. President Bush had gone to Iraq on flawed and manipulated intelligence. In the beginning, the rationale was destroying Weapons of Mass Destruction WMD in Iraq. When that was established as a lie as Iraq did not have any WMD, getting rid of the murderous regime of Saddam Hussein or regime change became the new rationale. When that too was achieved, the US found itself mired in fighting insurgency where the major ethnic/religious groups were fighting one another and extremists and fundamentalists, fighting the US occupation force. The US named this third phase as “Operation Iraqi Freedom” as a reason to occupy Iraq.
President Bush who had declared “mission accomplished” within seven months of the war in December 2003 on board an US aircraft carrier soon regretted his mistake as Iraq went up in flames where death and destruction became a routine matter with insurgency everywhere in the country. Till the time of President Obama's announcement on withdrawal of troops, 4,400 US men and women in uniform gave their lives for achieving the changing rationales of the war. Many times more than that number, in fact running into hundreds of thousand, innocent Iraqi men, women and children have also died in what has been insensitively described in the media as “collateral damage”.
It is just not these deaths that have made US's involvement in Iraq a questionable one; the amount of money spent in Iraq by the United States is also mind-boggling. According to a Congress Budget office report in January 2008, the Congress wrote checks worth US$ 691 billion for wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and such related activities as Iraq reconstruction. The misfortunes of poverty, disease and denial of minimum conditions of life for billions in Africa and Asia would have become history if the US had spent even a part of that money there instead of Iraq.
It is true that Saddam Hussein has been tried and hanged; his entire gang of close associates have also been likewise brought to face the law and many have been executed. The Baath party of Saddam Hussein has been banned. Iraq has meanwhile seen two elections where political parties and groups have fought in a democratic spirit, although such parties and alliances have been formed primarily on the basis of the country's religious and ethnic basis, thus strengthening these divides. When the first of the two elections was held in 2005, the voters came out and voted with a lot of hopes and aspirations. Nevertheless, it took three months for a government to be formed, bringing to the surface the extreme difficulties of forging alliances in a country as deeply divided as Iraq.
This time, the follow up on the elections has been more disappointing. The elections were held in March. The Iraqi National Alliance led by former Prime Minister Ayad Allawi won 91 seats; the State of Law Coalition led by incumbent Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki won 89 seats; the National Iraqi alliance 70 and the Kurdish alliance 40 seats in a parliament of 325 seats. The alliances have been negotiating for the last five months and they are nowhere near forming a Government. The US that had hoped to hand over combat operations to Iraqi security forces under a new Government must be deeply disappointed. President Obama's statement that the 50,000 troops who would remain in Iraq till the end of 2011--for what he described as training and support jobs--has now been qualified. A Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morell said in Washington after the President's announcement that the non-combat troops would be armed and ready for combat operations in case of necessity.
The time of exit nevertheless has been a favourable one for the US President. After the surge of 2007 when under President Bush, combat troops were substantially enhanced; insurgency has been to a great extent controlled. These days, insurgency being witnessed has been described as a low grade insurgency that the US feels could be controlled by the over 500,000 Iraqi security forces trained by the US forces. There is also discussion to bring combat troops from the Arab countries to fill the gap to be left by the departing US combat troops.
Some of these facts suggest that although political situation has improved considerably in Iraq under 7 years of US occupation, “something is rotten in the state of Denmark” to take a quote out of Hamlet. Iraq watchers are keeping their fingers crossed to find out whether insurgency would be contained after the US withdraws from combat operations. There are many who would argue that the US combat troops have been able to bring down insurgency only in specific areas of the country. They feel insurgency would flare up once the US combat troops withdraw.
Those who fear the worst in Iraq once Iraqi security forces take control argue that Iraq's deep-rooted ethnic and religious divides create the natural conditions for conflict. They feel that the US by its presence in the country for long 7 years has not been able to blunt in any way these differences. In fact, they argue that the occupation has enhanced these differences and once US withdraws, these divides would lead to dangerous and sectarian conflicts. They further argue that Iraq has never been a nation state and strong dictatorships like that of Saddam Hussein have kept it as an independent country.
The Obama administration may have sensed these problems and thought it's prudent to leave Iraq's security to Iraqis and till final withdrawal, watch how Iraqis fend for themselves without losing any more lives. This may be also a reason why he has refrained from claiming victory. Iraq may be on course to prove what some people have said earlier that Iraq's religious and ethnic divides create the conditions for a strong dictatorial government where democracy may not be the right prescription till elements of Iraqi nationalism emerge and consolidate. That is a long distance away by any count. The future of “Operation New Dawn” as the US has named the new phase is therefore, uncertain.
The writer is a former Ambassador to Japan and a Director, Centre for Foreign Affairs Studies.