Just days after the American colors were “cased” in Iraq, a wave of al Qaeda-style bombings struck Baghdad, killing dozens. The attacks also cast doubt on President Obama’s claim that, with our GIs coming home after nine years, Iraq is now “sovereign, stable and self-reliant.”
Analysts have strong concerns about what comes next for Iraq itself and for the region, as well as for our Afghanistan efforts and the broader War on Terror — and for US leadership in the Middle East.
Of course, it’s great to have our brave young men and women home, especially for the holidays. We owe this latest “greatest generation” a deep debt of gratitude for its service to our country far from kith and kin.
That said, it would have been wiser to keep a sufficiently robust, combat-capable force in Iraq — but Washington failed to close any such deal with Baghdad. Now the total US pullout has left Iraq teetering on the brink of instability and keeping bad company.
Iraq still suffers from regular sectarian violence, insurgent attacks and terrorism, including yesterday’s Baghdad bombings. Its badly divided government is unable to provide even basic services to the populace consistently.
The latest crisis: Government terrorism charges levied against Vice President Tariq al-Hashimi and reported moves to oust some politicians, such as Deputy Prime Minister Saleh al-Mutlaq. Many of their fellow Sunnis see this as nothing more than part of an ongoing power-grab by Shia elements in the government, including Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.
Even before these incidents added fuel to what is becoming a powder keg, Sunnis and Kurds saw the writing on the wall and have been pushing for regional self-governance.
These political troubles have generated fears that the increasingly disaffected “Awakening” Sunnis, who helped turn the tide against al Qaeda during the US “surge,” will return to the terror group or join other insurgent outfits.
Then there’s Iraq’s foreign relations, especially growing Iranian influence in the country via sympathetic Iraqi Shia “elites” and militias (e.g., the Mahdi Army) that serve their mullah masters in Tehran.
For Iran, sway in Iraq is another stepping-stone to gaining and exercising dominance over the heart of the Middle East. Tehran’s allies already include the Assad regime in Syria, Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in the Gaza Strip.
Also vexing is Baghdad’s unwillingness to hammer neighboring Damascus over the regime’s brutal crackdown, whose death toll (by UN estimates) may top 5,000. Late last month, Iraq voted against the Arab League’s punitive sanctions on Syria, steps aimed at stemming the seemingly endless violence.
In a way, the vote makes sense: Iraq trades a lot with Syria, and Baghdad’s Shia leaders aren’t interested in the rise of a Sunni (e.g., Muslim Brotherhood) regime in Damascus. But it’s still a bit surprising, because Syria has been a problem for years, including allowing of the passage of insurgents into Iraq.
Meanwhile, the rapid drop in US influence in Iraq (despite a huge, ongoing diplomatic effort) will almost certainly ripple its way to Afghanistan, where Team O seems to be looking for the exit as well.
It’s very likely the White House will cut Afghanistan troop levels this summer (in advance of the US presidential election), moving to a strategy centered on drone attacks, special-ops raids and training of the Afghan army and police.
One can only imagine that the “terrorist trio” of the Taliban, the Haqqani Network and al Qaeda is counting the days, encouraged further by how rapidly the US troop presence plunged in Iraq.
Whether intended or not, the near-total departure of our GIs from Iraq will leave America perceptibly weaker in the Middle East, creating a huge power vacuum that will be filled by players with interests and ideals very different from our own.
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