Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi declared victory over Islamic State on Dec 9, 2017. And while there will still be some fighting, the real war is over. Yet there were no parades, no statues pulled down, no “Mission Accomplished” moments. An event that might a few years ago have set American front pages atwitter wasn’t even worth a presidential tweet.
That’s because in Washington there is little to celebrate. The next big milestone for Iraq will be the elections expected to take place in May. The contours of Iraq post-Islamic State are becoming clearer. Less clear is whether the strategy to defeat IS was successful and whether the American wars in Iraq are finally over.
What stands out now is the conspicuous absence of American influence. The two main election candidates are current Prime Minister Abadi, and former Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki. Both come from the same Shia Dawa party, and both have close ties to Iran. The names should be familiar. Maliki was the Great American Hope in 2006, and again in 2010, to unite Iraq across Sunni-Shia-Kurdish lines as the bulk of American occupation forces withdrew. Abadi was the Great American Hope in 2014 to do the same as American troops flowed back to Iraq to fight Islamic State.
Abadi, a Shia backed by a group close to Iran, says he is running as the head of a cross-sectarian bloc. He took over from Maliki, also a close ally of Iran widely blamed by Iraqi politicians for the army’s failure to prevent Islamic State seizing a third of Iraq.
As prime minister, Maliki didn’t follow through on the George W Bush-ordered “surge” in US troop numbers in the end years of the American occupation, leaving the Sunnis at the mercy of Maliki’s Shia supporters. Maliki’s first action post-occupation — the day after the last American combat troops withdrew — was to try and arrest his own Sunni vice president. In 2014, Maliki unleashed his army in Sunni Anbar Province, a move which drew Islamic State in to Iraq. American manipulations then replaced Maliki with Abadi.
Yet despite high (American) hopes, Abadi made few efforts to integrate Sunnis into the Shia-dominated Iraqi judiciary, military, and police forces, the minimum groundwork for a united Iraq. He did not create economic opportunities for Sunnis or deliver public services. Instead, Abadi created new fault lines, ossified old ones by further embracing Tehran, and sent Iranian-led Shia militias numbering some 120,000 tearing through the Sunni heartlands. Both Presidents Obama and Trump worked closely with Abadi to ultimately destroy Islamic State in Iraq, at the expense of the Iraqi Sunnis.
The Obama-Trump strategy was medieval: kill people until there was no Islamic State left inside Iraq, then allow the Iranians and Shia Iraqis to do whatever they pleased with the Sunnis in the aftermath. This was the big takeaway from the Iraq war of 2003-2011: there would be no political follow-on this round, no nation building, between the end of the fighting and the exit. The United States would pay no mind to internal Iraqi politics, even if that meant an exclusionary Shia government in Baghdad under Tehran’s wing.
The walk-away policy was implemented, albeit less violently, to resolve for now the question of the Kurds. In September 2017, the Kurds voted for independence from Iraq, only to see their fate decided as Washington stood aside while Shia militias pushed Kurdish forces from disputed regions, including the oil-rich city of Kirkuk. After decades of American promises of independence, the Kurds were left to salvage a small bit of pre-2003 autonomy from Baghdad, where once full statehood stood within grasp. With American support, the Kurds blunted Islamic State in the darkest days of 2014. In 2018, in what some analysts call the “Twilight of the Kurds,” they no longer seem to have a place in Washington’s foreign policy.
The American strategy against Islamic State worked. It should have; this was a war the American military knew how to fight, with none of that tricky counterinsurgency stuff. Retaking Ramadi, Fallujah, and Mosul were set-piece battles. City after Sunni city were ground into little Dresdens (since 2014, the United States spent more than $14 billion on its air campaign against Islamic State) before being turned over to the militias for ethnic cleansing of renegade Sunnis.
Unlike the 2003-2011 war, when it spent $60 billion on the task, the United States does not intend trying to pay for the reconstruction of Iraq. Estimates suggest $100 billion is needed to rebuild the mostly Sunni areas destroyed, and to deal with the 2.78 million internally displaced Sunnis. Shia Baghdad pleads lack of funds to help. Across two administrations Washington contributed only $265 million to reconstruction since 2014 (by comparison, America allotted $150 million in 2017 alone to financing arms sales to Iraq, one of the top 10 global buyers of American weapons.) Other than plans for Kuwait to host a donors’ conference in February, the Sunnis are largely on their own.
President Donald Trump is unlikely to pull troops out of Iraq entirely. A reduced force will stay to play Whack-a-Mole with any Islamic State resurgence, to act as a rear-guard against the political fallout that chased Obama in 2011 when he withdrew troops, and to referee among the disparate groups in western Iraq and Syria the United States armed willy-nilly to help defeat Islamic State. The armed groups mostly set aside differences dating from Biblical times to fight IS, but with that behind them, about all they have in common is mutual distrust and lots of guns. American troops perma-stationed inside Iranian-allied Iraq are a bit of a geopolitical oddity, but one Iran has likely already at least passively agreed to. Tehran has little to gain from a fight over some American desert base real estate right now, when their prize is the rest of Iraq.
Over five administrations and 26 years, the United States paid a high price – some 4,500 American dead and trillions of taxpayer dollars spent – for what will have to pass as a conclusion. Washington’s influence in Baghdad is limited and relations with Iran are in shambles under a Trump administration still focused backwards on the Obama-era Iran nuclear accords. Iran is picking up the pieces, creating a new Lebanon out of the shell of what was once Iraq. As long as the Trump administration insists on not opening diplomatic relations with Tehran, Washington will have few ways to exert influence. Other nations in the Middle East will diversify their international relationships (think Russia and China) knowing this. If any of this does presage some future American conflict with an Iran that has gotten “too powerful,” then we shall have witnessed a true ironic tragedy.