After decades of war, Iraq is a divided and shattered country that seems as far away from peace as ever. Neither the Iraq War nor US involvement in it has ever really ended.
It’s easier to start a war than to end one. The proof can be found in the unfolding crisis in Western Iraq.
On January 3, 2014, The New York Times reported that militants aligned with al-Qaeda had captured parts of the cities of Fallujah and Ramadi in western Iraq’s Anbar province. The collapse of the Iraqi security apparatus in these cities of note comes on the heels of a heavy-handed counterterrorism offensive in Anbar and a wave of resignations from the Iraqi Parliament in late December 2013.
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These troubling developments affirm the recent assertion made by The London Review of Books’ Adam Schatz that, “The Iraq war is not over; it never really ended.”
But just how is the current conflict in Iraq linked with the US-led war that ostensibly ended with the final withdrawal of coalition forces at the end of 2011? When I read about the unfolding crisis in Anbar, I see two threads of continuity with the Iraq War.
First, the turmoil in Anbar is, in large part, the result of a sectarian political dynamic unleashed after the collapse of the Iraqi state in 2003. Media coverage of recent events in Iraq often has focused on this sectarian dynamic, which is immensely complicated and worthy of meticulous consideration.
The second thread of continuity with the Iraq war is a sustained and heavily militarized US involvement in the country.
The pervasive notion that America “abandoned” Iraq is a myth.
As the US made the transition from the costly position of occupier to the more economical position of patron, its direct influence on events within Iraq obviously diminished by some degree. Nevertheless, I will argue that we have been anything but an insubstantial player in Iraqi politics in the past two years.
Diplomatic Operations in Iraq
The Obama administration has overseen unusually large “civilian” operations in Iraq. The nation hosts a $730 million, 104-acre US embassy in Baghdad (the largest in the world; about the size of Vatican City), along with US consulates in Basra, Irbil and Kirkuk and US personnel in other sites scattered throughout the country.
Months after withdrawal, 16,000 people were staffing the embassy and the other sites. However, that number has dwindled steadily and was expected to reach 5,500 by the end of 2013.
Intelligence and Military Support for Iraq
More significantly, while the occupation of Iraq is over, involvement by US military and intelligence services continues in a subtler manner characteristic of the Obama administration’s broader foreign policy.
As early as October 2011, reporting by The Daily Beast’s Eli Lake indicated that the CIA was, “Looking at how it [could] absorb and continue secret counterterrorism and intelligence programs run inside that country for years by the Joint Special Operations Command and other military organizations.”
While I’m not sure how successful the CIA was in the intervening period, today the agency is supporting the Iraqi military’s endeavors in Anbar with “secret” targeting assistance.
Furthermore, back in 2012, Walter Pincus reported that the Obama administration had requested a whopping $2.26 billion for spending on Iraq in the fiscal year of 2013. Disapproving congressional Appropriations Committees cut this budget down to $1.1 billion “mostly to Iraq’s military.”
According to Pincus, $911 million was being dedicated to “a newForeign Military Financing (FMF) fund run by the State Department to continue Pentagon programs that develop Iraqi army professionalism and logistics capabilities. State already has $850 million for FMF in fiscal 2012 money.”
Keep in mind that that is spending and not military sales, which represent another dimension of our commitments in Iraq. In July and August 2013, the Pentagon reported more than $4 billion of foreign military sales to the country.
2013 (a year in which more than 8,000 Iraqis were killed in the violence still plaguing the country) ended with the United States rushing Hellfire missiles and reconnaissance drones to the Iraqi government in an anxious bid to help defeat the al-Qaeda affiliates that have come to control parts of Anbar. Leasing Apache attack helicopters to the government of Iraq is also on the table awaiting Congressional approval.
Is This the Way Forward?
These facts should all challenge the conventional wisdom that our role in managing Iraq’s internal conflict has been negligible since 2012. To the contrary, our military support for the government appears to be growing because the difficulties that have sustained violence in Iraq in the past decade remain unresolved.
This is cause for concern. The Shiite Islamist-led government of Nouri al-Maliki that we are currently backing against al-Qaeda affiliates may be the lesser of two evils, but it’s still a major part of the problems plaguing Iraq. Maliki’s government has played a significant role in creating the crisis in Anbar by intensifying the sectarian divide alluded to above.
Unfortunately, trends do not appear to be reversing – with Human Rights Watch indicating that, “government security forces responded to attacks by al-Qaeda armed groups on the night of January 1, 2014, with mortar and gunfire into residential areas, in some cases with apparently no al-Qaeda presence.” Moreover, American officials appear to be recommending that the United States resume training Iraqi commandos in Jordan.
After decades of war, Iraq is a divided and shattered country that seems as far away from peace as ever. More than new Apaches, it needs a reconciliation commission and maybe a Marshall Plan.