Will the defeat of Islamic State in Iraq be a foreign policy victory for Donald Trump? With the fall of Mosul imminent, what happens next?
There will be winners, like the Kurds. There will be losers, like Iraq’s Sunni minority. There will be gains for Iran, which backs the Shi’ite militias drafted to fight Sunni-dominated IS. And there may be a silver lining for the Trump administration – specifically in the form of Kurdish independence and permanent American bases in a Shi’ite-ruled Iraq. But any declaration of “victory” on the part of the United States depends on how the measure of those results is taken.
Start with the Kurds. Their military forces currently control a swath of northern territory, including the oil-rich province of Kirkuk. The area has been a functional confederacy since soon after the American invasion of 2003 and in spite of likely opposition from Baghdad, a fully-realized nation-state of Kurdistan seems inevitable. The Kurds certainly think so; they’ll hold an independence referendum on September 25.
Previous U.S. administrations restrained Kurdish ambitions, trying to keep “Iraq” more or less as it was within its 2003 borders. George W. Bush, and to a lesser extent Barack Obama, wished for a unified Iraq as a symbol, the conclusion of the invasion narrative of eliminating Saddam Hussein and establishing a new semi-secular ally in the heart of the Middle East. A unified Iraq that enveloped the Kurds was also sought by NATO ally Turkey, which feared an independent Kurdish state on its disputed eastern border.
The Trump White House appears less anguished about Kurdish independence; Trump is for the first time, for example, overtly arming pro-Kurdish independence militias, whom the Turks call terrorists, to take on Islamic State. Washington doesn’t seem to have a plan for disarming the militias before they start fighting for control of disputed ancestral Kurdish lands held by Turkey.
So the key question has become not if the Kurds will announce some sort of statehood, but whether the Kurds will go to war with Turkey to round out their territorial claims in the process. The United States, with the ties that previously bound Washington and Ankara weakened following Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s authoritarian crackdown, might just be ready to stand aside and allow Kurdish ambitions to play out. The Kurds are respected in American conservative circles important to Trump, and the Turks have fewer friends than ever there. Kurdish oil will be welcome to Washington, and the Kurds have always championed close security ties with the U.S. A strong U.S.-Kurd alliance will also help Trump keep Iran in check.
Meanwhile, an Obama-era marriage of practicality which brought Shi’ite militias into the fight against Islamic State will not play out as well for Trump.
Any reluctance on the part of the United States to act as a restraining force on the Iraqi central government’s empowering of Shi’ite militias disappeared in 2014. As the Iraqi National Army collapsed in front of Islamic State, the crisis demanded battle-ready forces, and the militias were the only option available outside of Kurdish-controlled areas.
The problem for America is that many of those Shi’ite militias owe significant allegiance to Iran, which helps arm them and supplements their efforts with special forces and leadership. Unlike the post-invasion years of about 2006 forward, when the United States and Iran fought a shadow war for control inside Iraq, America has had to accept that it needs the militias to defeat Islamic State.
Time will tell what Iran will do with its influence in Iraq. But there is certainly nothing for the White House to celebrate in seeing Iranian boots on the same ground where Americans died to hold territory. Or with having to deal with a Baghdad government beholden to Tehran and its Shi’ite militias.
In the Sunni parts of Iraq, there is no real win for the Trump administration. The fight against Islamic State is destroying Mosul, and has already devastated Sunni cities like Ramadi and Fallujah. Neither Washington nor Baghdad has any realistic plans to rebuild.
Yet despite a tangential win alongside the Kurds, and with clear losses vis-vis the Shi’ite and Sunnis, there is perhaps a real silver lining in Iraq for Trump. Permanent American military bases.
Post-Islamic State, Iraq will be a Shi’ite nation with close ties to Iran. The price Iraq and Iran will be forced to pay for America’s reluctant pragmatism over this will likely be small but permanent American military bases inside Iraq, mostly out of sight in the far west. (You won’t laugh if you remember that the U.S. maintained its base at Guantanamo even after it severed ties with Soviet-dominated Cuba.)
Trump is unlikely to give up bases in a rush to declare victory in Iraq, as did his predecessors, and has several thousand American troops already in place to back up his plans. America seeks bases as a symbol of some sort of victory, a way to block any politically-ugly Shi’ite reprisals against the Sunnis, and as a bulwark against whatever happens in Syria. In addition, Israel is likely to near-demand the United States garrison western Iraq as a buffer against expanding Iranian power.
Sealing the deal is that Iran will have little to gain from a fight over some desert estate that it would probably lose anyway, when their prize is the rest of Iraq. Those bases even might, at America’s expense, keep any Sunni successors to Islamic State from moving into Iraq – as happened after al Qaeda outstayed its welcome.
While the fight against Islamic State in Iraq isn’t over, an ending of sorts is clear enough to allow for some reasonable predictions. But whatever happens will leave an unanswered, and sadly, perhaps unasked, question: was the outcome worth to Americans the cost of some 4,500 dead, and the trillions of taxpayer dollars spent, over the last 14 years?