With ubiquitous obstacles, much elusive progress in Iraq and a highly-costly liberation, record books may well show Iraq as a war the US did not win, but a war that they “survived”.
In a speech at the Marine Corps base of Camp Lejeune, U.S president Barack Obama, announced the onset of a “new” strategy in Iraq and effectively the withdrawal of the bulk of US troops by the end of August 2009, by which time the U.S. “combat mission” would have ended.
Withdrawal from Iraq was on one of the pillars of Obama’s election campaign, and was widely anticipated. For many, Obama opted for the middle course of three possibilities – withdrawal within 16 months of taking office as he had often pledged and a more long-term course preferred by others.
While this may point to a significant milestone in the contentious U.S. episode in Iraq, the U.S. and Iraqi marriage, and specifically their military attachment is far from over.
The beginning of the end?
As Obama expressed gratitude for the sacrifices of U.S. personnel and the “hard-earned” progress achieved, the key message was that the U.S. was now in its concluding chapters in its “war” in Iraq.
In spite of much initial euphoria and expectation, solid progress in Iraq has been hard to come by and with Iraq seemingly achieving some semblance of security and stability, for Washington this may be the crucial window of opportunity needed to finally execute a highly-elusive U.S. exit strategy.
The liberation of Iraq has certainly been far from plain sailing, and the Republican casualty in recent elections was arguably due to the controversial and costly invasion of Iraq as any other matter.
Whether Obama can leave “responsibly” as promised, may be as ambiguous as George W. Bush’s pledge of “success” in Iraq.
Obama may speak with gusto and determination on the situation but ultimately Obama is a realist and that is reflected in the decision to maintain up to 50,000 U.S. troops in Iraq until end of 2011, in line with the protracted Status of Forces Agreement (Sofa) signed by the Bush administration and Baghdad.
Obama emphasised that while progress was made, there were still “difficult days ahead” in Iraq. This statement symbolises the anxiety still expressed in the White House and the relative flexibility that is likely to be appointed by Washington in spite of what appears as an end road for the U.S. military in Iraq.
Iraqi obstacles to prosperity
While the U.S. can point to significant gains in recent years and on paper what appears as a markedly improved security situation and more credible political landscape in Iraq, this may prove to be the end of the beginning for Iraq.
If progress can be measured in terms of security and sectarian violence, then Iraq has certainly advanced at a rapid if not fragile pace in recent years, thanks largely to the surge strategy of Bush.
However, stability and progress must be viewed with as much focus in the long-term as any short-term success measures. In this respect Iraq may have a considerable distance to go.
Iraq remains a disparate entity and key national differences can not be easily papered over by Western notions of democracy, and will remain to blight and hinder the Iraqi social horizon, until all sides truly embrace the principles of compromise, equality and the will of the people.
Beneath the surface, political progress in Iraq has been slow and many key milestones remain elusive. This includes a fundamental lack of a national hydrocarbon law and constitutional rifts.
Difference over a constitution, the very blueprint of the national values and governance, are no small matter. Differences about how to distribute Iraq’s immense oil wealth, to share power amongst the various communities and resolve highly-emotive topics such the jurisdiction of disputed territories is nothing short of elements that can implode at any time.
Over to you, Iraq
The key message by Bush and now Obama is a full return of Iraq to Iraqis. The U.S. has introduced the notion of democracy and now Iraqi’s can decide their fate under this new umbrella.
In principle this makes logical and indeed practical sense. However, where the gulf in differences is too wide and deep-rooted, democracy and diplomacy may not be so simple to implement.
Washington is certainly correct in the sense it is down to Iraqis to decide their fortunes. Certainly only the Iraqis can determine the stability, prosperity and level of national reconciliation. No amount of U.S. influence can change the fundamental fact that it is down to Iraqis to make real compromises and select systems of government that will stitch the countries groupings together in relative harmony.
On the surface, Iraq has the military might to enforce security. This is represented by the growingly powerful Iraqi national army, the less official but highly-influential Sunni Awakening Council forces, ever menacing Shiite militia forces and significant and experienced Kurdish Peshmerga forces.
Pooled together, Iraq has a mighty force in place that can easily keep security and national defence. Working against each other, Iraq has all of the ingredients for one of the most violent civil wars in living memory.
Kurdish pleas for US intervention
As rifts between Erbil and Baghdad seem to be widening at an alarming pace, key disagreements between both sides, particularly over Kirkuk and other disputed territories, have stoked a vicious war of words.
Plea’s by Kurdish leaders for U.S. intervention has fallen on deaf ears, with the U.S. emphasising that there is now a democratic apparatus in place to resolve such matters.
However, U.S. officials fail to acknowledge the repercussions if these same democratic systems are ignored. Sidelining constitutional matters elected by millions and delaying key milestones is far from democratic.
But the U.S. is no fool. They may support only the will of the Iraqi people on the surface, but they know fully well that applying democracy in such a sphere is sometimes like applying square pegs to a round hole, especially since the results of these principles are never likely to be embraced by factions that fear to “lose” from such popular votes.
Let’s not forget that there was even democracy under Saddam Hussein – but you can vote for only one man and one party.
Obama’s ever-increasing plate
While on the surface, much positivity is been aired about future prospects in Iraq, for the U.S. it may be a case of achieving the “best” short-term outcome, than the ideal outcome.
However, times have changed drastically since the original invasion in 2003. Highly-costly and prolonged wars in Iraq have cost the U.S. economy hundreds of billions of dollars, without every reaping fundamental long-term gains for these sacrifices. Throw in one of the worst global financial crisis in living memory, a deepening recession in the U.S. and a resurgent Taliban in the forgotten war that is Afghanistan, the U.S. can simply ill-afford to fine-tune the current situation in Iraq and must now start to concentrate on more “urgent” matters.
This does not equate to a U.S. mindset that the Iraqi projects are complete or that they can now abandon the Iraqi experience. Simply, they can not wait impatiently for years to come for Iraqis to reconcile at a leisurely rate, while their other interests in the Middle East and at home suffer immeasurably.
Obama will need to learn from the failures of his predecessor and that means that one can not judge Iraq without considering the greater context of the Middle East. Even if U.S. puts all their eggs in one basket and achieves a real and solid democracy in Iraq, U.S. efforts will be wasted if other key figures in the region are not wooed sufficiently, and discouraged from preying on their neighbouring Iraqi victims like vultures.
U.S. officials acknowledge the need to reach out to the greater Middle Eastern arena, and particularly Iran and Syria. Furthermore, as Iraq became the Republican Achilles heel, the Palestinian roadmap suffered, and this may need the full focus of Obama to be reignited.
Broad Support for Obama’s Plan
Although some remain concerned that Obama’s election pledge was watered down and the residual force remained significant through to 2011, Obama received broad support for the “new strategy” of his national security team.
The Republicans remained generally supportive, although they were keen to showcase the achievements of the Bush administration in getting to this stage.
Others U.S. politicians, as well as key Iraqi politicians, have expresses anxiety that the withdrawal could reverse the dramatic but tentative gains to date.
On his part, Iraqi Prime Minister, Nouri al-Maliki stated his confidence that Iraqi forces were capable of providing security in the absence of U.S. forces.
In principle, Obama has tried to be tactful and positive on the surface but real uncertainty will remain in his mind. Obama tried to be reassuring and clear in his statements, but will know much will depend on how Iraqis progress, specifically with the national elections scheduled for later this year.
Although, the White House have pointed to the democratic apparatus to resolve national issues and aired common optimism, behind the scenes they will remain watchful to how Iraqis shape their future.
How the remaining chapters of the Iraqi war unravels is dependent on the Iraqis, but the U.S. must can ill afford, after reaching this stage with much sacrifice by their own admission, simply believe that they have fulfilled their end of the bargain.