Iraq/Afghanistan: Same Fate?
CONFLICT RESOLUTION - MEDIATION, 25 Oct 2021
The American Departure and the Capture of Kabul
Jul/Sep 2021 – In February 2020, an agreement between the Trump administration and the Taliban was signed in Doha, Qatar, promising the complete withdrawal of American and NATO troops from Afghanistan in May 2021. This agreement was supposed to put an end to an endless war, having claimed the lives of nearly 46,000 Afghan civilians and more than 2,500 American soldiers (1). Indeed, this war, the longest ever waged by the United States, had never succeeded in entirely eliminating the forces of the Taliban regime, which throughout the conflict maintained a guerrilla state in the occupied country, despite the enormous means employed by the US Department of Defense. One thousand billion dollars will have been spent (2) and 775,000 American soldiers deployed during the 20 years of occupation (3), without ever succeeding in bringing peace to the country.
Faced with a situation which offered no suitable exit strategy, it was therefore decided to leave in the hope that the Afghan army, trained and equipped with advanced equipment provided by the United States, could face the Taliban on its own. This will not have been the case. On August 15, the Afghan capital Kabul was finally taken over by the Taliban, nearly 20 years after they were driven out by the invasion of an international coalition led by the United States in 2002. The lightning reconquest of the country that has taken place since the announcement in May 2021 of the withdrawal of American troops at the end of August surprised all international observers as well as the United States, which, by the Biden administration’s own admission, did not expect such a rapid victory for the Taliban over the Afghan government (4).
This seizure of power in record time transformed the American repatriation plan into a rescue mission in the face of the arrival of the Taliban in the Afghan capital. Very quickly, many criticisms were leveled against the American president, accusing him of having precipitated the departure of American forces from Afghanistan and consequently delivered the country to the Taliban (5).
Faced with this debacle which shortly followed the announcement of the American departure, it is now legitimate to wonder whether a similar scenario could take place in Iraq, the second country to have faced an American invasion following 9.11, where the upcoming end of the American combat mission was announced by Joe Biden on July 26.
The imminent departure from Iraq
The US military returned to Iraq in 2014, the year in which the Iraqi government asked for US help to cope with the rise of the Islamic State (IS), which at that time had already conquered large territories in Syria and Iraq, notably capturing Mosul, the second largest city in Iraq. Over the following years, the number of American troops deployed in Iraq would increase to finally reach 5,000 in 2016 (6).
Today, with only 2,500 US soldiers left in Iraq, Joe Biden has announced the end of the combat mission of the American army by December 2021, thus putting to an end within the same year the two American interventions often nicknamed “endless wars”. This decision can be explained by a resurgence of tensions surrounding the stationing of American troops in Iraq. These tensions are rooted, among other things, in the assassination in January 2020 of Iranian general Qassem Soleimani and Abu Mahdi Al Muhandis, one of the main leaders of the Iraqi Popular Mobilization Forces, in an American drone strike on the road to Baghdad airport. This strike, justified by the Trump administration as being in response to attacks planned by these men against American forces, prompted the Iraqi parliament to demand the withdrawal of foreign troops stationed in the country (7). Since then, various Iraqi armed groups, backed by Iran, have regularly carried out attacks against American soldiers, demanding an end to their presence in Iraq.
This hostile climate prompted Joe Biden to accept the end of this mission, a decision which was greeted with enthusiasm by most Iraqi political groups (8). Nonetheless, this statement, made when the Taliban were only two weeks away from victory in Afghanistan, leaves one wondering about the possibility that an identical scenario could occur in Iraq, especially since the US withdrawal of 2011 had already been followed by the establishment of the IS Caliphate just three years later.
The 2011 withdrawal and its consequences
An American withdrawal from Iraq had indeed already taken place in 2011, eight years after the invasion which led to the fall of Saddam Hussein and favored the emergence of conditions which only a few years later would partly contribute to the rise of IS. Indeed, the Iraqi elections of 2010 led to the victory of the Iraqiya political group, largely supported by the Sunni community. This victory for Iraqiya would also mean the defeat of the “Rule of Law Coalition” and its leader, Nouri Al Maliki, the most influential Shiite politician of the time, who aspired to keep his position as prime minister. The results of this election were extremely close, Iraqiya winning 91 of the 325 seats in the Iraqi parliament against 89 for the Rule of Law Coalition, thus theoretically allowing Iraqiya to be the first party to attempt to form a government.
However, Maliki refused to recognize the defeat of his coalition, propagating theories according to which the elections had been victims of fraud and thus creating a political crisis within the young Iraqi democracy. The United States, in a hurry to end its military engagement in Iraq, decided to engage by pushing for the leader of Iraqiya, Ayad Allawi, to agree to recognize the victory of the Coalition for the Rule of Law, which they considered to be the most able to quickly form a government (8). This allowed Maliki to be re-appointed prime minister, despite the electoral results which only gave his coalition second place in terms of votes.
This decision of the Obama administration was justified by the desire to disengage from Iraq as quickly as possible, in accordance with the campaign promise that had in part led to his election in 2008, despite the failure to respect the constitution of the Iraqi republic and the choice of its people. The appointment of Maliki as prime minister had the consequence of weakening the confidence that the Iraqis had in democracy and contributed in particular to the rise of a certain sectarian resentment within the Sunni community, which was later used by IS to obtain a base of support in 2014 (10).
In addition to this, the corruption, sectarianism, and internal disputes within the Maliki government, as well as in the upper echelons of the Iraqi military during the years following this election, further undermined the cohesion of Iraqi society and weakened its army, which allowed IS to expand even more quickly and easily (11).
Ultimately, the haste shown by the Obama administration to repatriate its troops from the country therefore led it to take decisions which, far from allowing Iraq to stabilize after their departure, on the contrary helped to create the basis for frustration among a large part of the population. It was precisely this lack of consideration that enabled IS to find support within certain Sunni communities, which greatly facilitated its expansion.
A worrying situation
The possibility that the end of the American military mission will lead to a renewed influence of IS, the seizure of power by a non-state armed group, or even a civil war, is now advanced by some observers (12). The security vacuum that could be created by this withdrawal indeed raises fears that, as in Afghanistan this year or Iraq in 2014, it will again be filled by the rise of another non-state armed group. Within Iraqi society itself, the recent images from Afghanistan have left a large number of people worried about the fate that would be reserved for them and their country in the event of an American departure (13).
All the more so since the victory of the Taliban in Afghanistan could inspire Sunni or even Shiite armed groups in Iraq (14). Indeed, the model proposed by the Taliban gives a strong signal to other armed militant groups that the departure of foreign troops from the country will lead to the collapse of the state armed forces, allowing them to easily gain power. This observation could well galvanize the militias present in Iraq, who could take advantage of the end of the American mission to relaunch an offensive, hoping to take advantage of a possible rout of the Iraqi army, as was the case in 2014 or in Afghanistan this summer.
Not really a departure
The concern within Iraqi society is therefore palpable and understandable. But big differences distinguish the Afghan and Iraqi contexts.
The main distinction remains the fact that this “withdrawal” of combat troops is not really a departure. Indeed, the American soldiers still present in Iraq already have almost no combat mission and are in fact employed to train and advise the Iraqi armed forces. Therein lies the subtlety: Joe Biden, by announcing that he is only withdrawing his combat troops, will in reality only imperceptibly reduce the number of soldiers stationed in Iraq today. It will suffice to modify the mission of the American personnel, by officially changing its nature from “combat mission” to “advisory mission” (15).
This announcement was therefore above all symbolic and should not greatly modify the American presence on Iraqi soil. The main purpose of the measure is to try to appease Iranian-backed militias as well as Iraqi political parties pressuring the government to get the troops out. The announcement of the end of this mission therefore allows Mustapha Al Kadhimi, the current Iraqi Prime Minister, to advertise himself as the man who was able to rid the country of foreign forces after the vote in parliament last year. This apparent victory will perhaps be decisive for him in the Iraqi elections which will take place in October 2021.
This situation also offers an advantage for Biden. In addition to allowing him to consolidate the power of his ally Kadhimi, this announcement allows him at the same time to be able to declare the end of another war in which the USA has been entangled for almost 20 years. This political maneuver is therefore a situation which both the American President and the Iraqi Prime Minister find beneficial, in order to highlight their achievements in the field of foreign policy.
The humiliation of too many
Beyond the symbolic aspect of this decision, which will not therefore really change the size of the American military presence, Joe Biden should not have to relive in Iraq the flagrant failure of the American withdrawal from Afghanistan, which would cause his political credibility to take a huge hit. Indeed, the Taliban’s takeover of Kabul was seen as a huge setback by the majority of the American press and public, reducing the president’s popularity rating to the lowest since his election, at 50% (16).
This debacle, in addition to damaging the image of a competent president that he had tried to forge during his campaign, also risks weakening the Democrat camp during the parliamentary elections of 2022. A return of IS or the prospect of a civil war sinking Iraq into chaos would end up damaging Joe Biden’s credibility as a seasoned strategist in international politics, in addition to serving as yet another humiliation for Americans. It therefore seems unlikely that the president will be able to let the Afghan scenario recur under his mandate.
Another element that should prevent Biden from abandoning Iraq to its fate is the fear of losing this ally in which so many resources have been invested to the benefit of Iran, another influential power in Iraq and rival of the United States. The seizure of power by a pro-Iranian group would be a defeat of the foreign policy of the United States in the Middle East, which has since the overthrow of Saddam Hussein tried to make it a regional ally. Thus, if Iraq definitively tipped over into the Iranian sphere of influence, these efforts, instead of consolidating the United States in the region, would ultimately have served only to enlarge and strengthen Iranian power.
A more reliable army
There is also less fear now that the Iraqi armed forces could collapse today as it did in 2014 during the rise of IS. Indeed, the sectarian policy pursued by Prime Minister Maliki at that time had greatly damaged the cohesion of the army. The latter indeed surrendered after only a few hours of fighting during the Battle of Mosul against IS men, despite the latter’s relative numerical and material weakness (17).
Today, Maliki is no longer in power, and his pro-Shiite policies are a thing of the past. The risk of desertion of Sunni and Kurdish soldiers is therefore now much less compared to the time when they were systematically marginalized for the benefit of their Shiite colleagues, without giving importance to their real skills. Far from that, the new prime minister, Kadhimi, has on the contrary made the fight against sectarianism one of the main points of his program (18).
In view of these developments, it is to be hoped that the Iraqi army can now be truly united in the face of the rise of a possible new threat.
A limited comparison
In the end, if the comparison between Iraq and Afghanistan is part of the news today, it is because they are two wars which followed the attacks of September 11. The two differ very widely in their history and their current situation. Afghanistan was invaded to put an end to the Taliban regime, which hosted Al Qaeda, and which the American army would continue to fight throughout these 20 years of occupation, whereas the United States invaded Iraq and put an end to Saddam Hussein’s Baathist regime without any risk that it would subsequently return to power. The struggle in Afghanistan therefore saw US troops clash against a regime that had ruled the country, had an army, and was extremely well organized and funded. This context is not the same as in Iraq, where once Saddam Hussein – and the Baath Party – fell, the United States above all tried to stabilize and pacify the country against various insurgent movements or armed groups that mostly had neither the experience nor the organization of the Taliban.
The wars that were fought in these two countries are therefore very different, as is the situation when the United States leaves. The Taliban have never been truly defeated and have always been able to keep control of a portion of Afghan territory, while today IS no longer governs any Iraqi territory and, far from maintaining a genuine army, does not fight more than through the use of isolated attacks.
Ultimately, whether it is the threat to these two countries or the very nature of the American withdrawal, there is nothing to really justify the prediction sometimes made that Iraq should follow an “Afghan path”, as was the case in 2011. The Iraqi political context is not the same anymore, and it is possible to hope that today its army can withstand the shock in the event of a new crisis.
Tags: Afghanistan, Conflict Analysis, Conflict Transformation, Iraq, NATO, Pentagon, US Military
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