John Kerry is right: US troops in Iraq wouldn’t have stopped al-Qaida
On Sunday, Republican Senators John McCain and Lindsay Grahamblasted the Obama administration for the return of al-Qaida to Iraq, arguing that the withdrawal of US troops in 2011 created a power vacuum that would be “filled with America’s enemies”. They claim that if the US had maintained even a small military presence in Iraq, al-Qaida would never have gained a foothold in the western regions of Iraq and reclaimed Fallujah. It is Obama’s abdication of leadership, in their tired Churchillian worldview, that produced the chaos in Iraq today.
This argument reflects a gross simplification of the problem that Iraq currently faces. The resurgence of al-Qaida in Iraq is a product of two dynamics, neither of which is a direct consequence of the absence of US troops. First, al-Qaida in Iraq has been rescued from near strategic collapse by the progress of Syria’s brutal civil war. As the war dragged on, the inchoate rebel opposition to Bashar al-Assad has becomeincreasingly led by the jihadi forces sympathetic to the general worldview of al-Qaida.
In the eastern regions of Syria, one of these prominent jihadi forces, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (Isis), has become an incubator of terrorist violence within Iraq, sending dozens of suicide bombers into the country and turning the entire cross-border region into a battlefield. Its goal is to spread the war across borders, in the hopes of creating a greater sectarian Sunni state comprised of parts of Iraq and Syria.
Due to their activities, 2013 was among the bloodiest years on record for Iraq, with 8,868 Iraqis (including both civilians and security forces) killed in that year alone. If Syria had not collapsed into chaos and civil war – a fact unrelated to the number of US troops on bases in a neighboring state – it is unlikely that al-Qaida would have mounted such a comeback.The terrorist group would have remained a residual force in Iraq, capable of gruesome attacks, but incapable of threatening to grab control of Iraqi territory.
Second, the return of al-Qaida is a direct function of the increasing authoritarianism of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s government and his short-sighted marginalization of the Sunnis. While Maliki has always been a sectarian figure with suspected links to Iran, his authoritarian streak has only gotten worse in recent years, as he has regularly charged critics of the government, including prominent officials, with terrorism. The recent crisis was generated by the arrest of prominent Iraqi parliamentarian Ahmed al-Alwani on terrorism charges. Iraqi security forces stormed the home of Alwani, who was known for backing Sunni anti-government protests, in a bloody incident which killed six people, including his brother.
The problem with this attempted arrest – and dozens before this, including former Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi – is that they represent an effort by Maliki to use the charge of “terrorism” to eliminate his enemies. Over time, successive arrests of critics of the government, and the heavy-handed behavior of the Shia-dominated security forces, has inflamed sectarian tensions and convinced more of the Sunnis to see the Maliki regime as a hostile force. Maliki has hardly helped matters by ignoring or repressing protests against his government’s policies. This pattern of politicized arrests has reinforced the sense of political marginalization among Sunnis, and provided an opportunity for al-Qaida to re-establish itself in those regions as a champion of their cause.
The question that McCain and Graham raise is whether a US troop presence would have restrained Maliki and prevented the Sunnis from becoming as disenfranchised as they are today. The evidence does not support this argument: Maliki’s authoritarian streak was in evidence before US withdrawal in 2011, and there is no evidence that a token presence of trainers and Special Forces would have conveyed any additional leverage to American officials in their dealing with Maliki. It is more likely that a larger US presence in Iraq would have been seen by Sunnis as an attempt to backstop a Shia dominated government hostile to their interests. With only a small number of troops present, the US would have been a bystander to Iraq’s authoritarian drift and may have been implicated in this new sectarian contest as the underwriter of Maliki’s power.
Moreover, the argument that McCain and Graham offer overlooks one basic fact: that in an occupation, the occupier is often so dependent on the local government that it can extract little, if anything, when dealing with them. For an example of this dynamic, one must only look at US efforts to get Hamid Karzai to say yes to anything it wants in Afghanistan. After 12 years of fighting, and trillions wasted in that country, it is obvious to everyone but McCain and Graham that the US is more dependent on Karzai than he is on them. Missing this point – and rehashing fantasies in which every war is America’s to win, and no occupation can ever end – is an indulgence that the US can no longer afford.
The Obama administration (most notably Secretary of State John Kerry) is right to refuse to deploy ground troops in this new round of fighting against al-Qaida. This is a multi-faceted, cross-border war with militias fighting on both sides; it is ultimately the job of the Iraqi government to defeat al-Qaida and to restore its legitimacy. If Washington wants to help, it should not rush into offering weapons and intelligence to the Iraqi government without extracting a promise from Maliki to end his misguided repression of Sunni critics, and to accommodate the legitimate demands of the Sunni population.