What does the US leave behind in Iraq?

ben-isakhan Dr Ben Isakhan
Email: b.isakhan@latrobe.edu.au

A version of this appeared on The National Times on 30 August, 2010.

While Australia has had a few days of political uncertainty, spare a thought for the people of Iraq who are seeing off the last US combat forces this week amidst a hung parliament of their own and a sudden escalation in violence.

The March 2010 federal elections in Iraq saw a similar result to the recent ones here. The two major coalitions – incumbent Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki’s State of Law and Ayad Allawi’s Al-Iraqiya – both failed to garner the requisite number of seats to form a government. These two large coalitions were then forced to negotiate with various independents, minor parties and smaller political blocs.

The difference is that Iraq’s political impasse has lasted for almost six months with no end in sight to the horse-trading and political posturing that has thus far failed to produce a stable and secure government.

This does not bode well for Iraqi democracy as the millions of citizens who literally risked their lives to vote in March are becoming increasingly disillusioned. The abject failures of Iraq’s elected politicians have led many to question their integrity and to wonder whether democracy can really provide the much needed peace and prosperity.

What’s more, the political stalemate has created the environ in which various militant factions are re-asserting themselves with devastating results. Since the elections, violence has escalated dramatically with August being one of the deadliest months in recent memory.

Worse still is the fact that all of this comes as the US brings to an end more than seven years of combat operations in Iraq. By the end of August the US presence will have plummeted to only 50,000 troops, by far the lowest number since 2003. More to the point, the remaining troops will be there in an “advise and assist” capacity and will eschew combative operations.

Although I was adamantly opposed to the invasion of Iraq and an outspoken critic of the many failures of the occupation, the US withdrawal does raise a host of very serious concerns.

Firstly, there is the question of whether the US and its “Coalition of the Willing” will leave behind a more or less democratic, prosperous and peaceful Iraq than the one they so violently invaded seven years ago? As claims of Saddam’s Weapons of Mass Destruction and links to Al-Qaeda proved fraudulent, the central impetus of the war shifted to re-creating Iraq as a Western ally that would be a beacon of progress in the region.

However, while some measurable progress has been made, the war has abjectly failed to achieve this goal. Indeed, Iraq remains one of the poorest and deadliest places on earth. As the current situation demonstrates, Iraq’s democracy is far from robust, violence remains a hallmark of everyday life, and people live in destitution among the nations crumbling and insufficient infrastructure.

More broadly, this critical juncture forces us to ask difficult questions about the successes and failures of the “War on Terror”. As we approach the ten year anniversary of September 11, has the US-led mission to stamp out terror been in any measurable way a success?

Certainly, the ongoing situation in countries such as Afghanistan, Pakistan and Yemen would suggest otherwise. In Iraq, despite recurring claims that Al-Qaeda had finally been defeated, the country remains home to various insurgent groups and terrorist networks who remain capable of launching devastating attacks almost at their whim. They still threaten to destabilise the fledgling government and may well assert themselves with renewed vigour after the US withdrawal.

In fact, the withdrawal of US troops form Iraq may well be seen as a victory by Al-Qaeda and others. In the same way that they used the invasion of Iraq in their propaganda, the withdrawal may enable them to further promulgate their narrow and deadly ideologies.

Finally, the current withdrawal from Iraq also serves as a timely opportunity to reflect on the status of the world’s last remaining superpower. The Iraq war brought a number of challenges to the United States and the things for which it is said to stand. These included the absence of UN authorization for the war and incidents like those at Abu Ghraib prison. It also includes a devastating death toll for both Iraqi civilians and coalition soldiers.

These elements converged to make the war remarkably unpopular across the globe, arguably giving way to rising anti-Americanism and a deep cynicism about US goals and the means by which they achieve them.

As people lost what little faith they had in the war, the US-led coalition crumbled. Many coalition partners left shortly after arrival. In Australia, Rudd’s 2007 promise to re-assess Australia’s commitment saw our combat operations in Iraq end in July 2009. Such withdrawals and the overall failures of the Iraq war raise questions about the likelihood of coalition partners – including Australia – committing forces to future US-led military operations.

At first glance, these questions may seem peripheral to the next Australian government, whoever emerges on top. However, they are in fact critical in determining key elements of Australia’s future foreign policy. The next Australian government will inherit an ongoing but unpopular commitment to Afghanistan, a “War on Terror” that has not been adequately concluded, a disappointing legacy in the Middle East and a complex relationship with what is perhaps a faltering superpower.

In addressing these fundamental issues, the next Australian government would be wise to carefully dissect the Howard and Rudd governments’ role in the invasion, occupation and withdrawal from Iraq.