Iraq's shadow over Afghanistan

The Barack Obama administration’s plans for subduing the Taliban are endangered by continuing insecurity in Iraq
Paul Rogers author pic
Paul Rogers
4 February 2010

The current surge in United States military forces in Afghanistan part of a strategy designed to bring the war to an end from a position of strength. The great strains within the US military mean that the deployment of 30,000 troops to Afghanistan can be sustained only if forces can be withdrawn from Iraq at the scheduled rate: that is, all combat-forces out by August 2010 and the remaining (approximately 50,000) personnel by the end of 2011. The dynamics of violence in Iraq present a serious challenge to this strategy.

Washington is thus engaged in a delicate balancing-act: managing disengagement from Iraq while ensuring that the United States will retain a significant military presence in the country well beyond 2011 in order to exercise a maximum degree of influence. 

A new label

The US forces remaining in Iraq after the substantial withdrawal of August 2010 – which follows the evacuation of troops from Iraqi cities at the end of June 2009 - are intended to perform a variety of roles. Some may be engaged in training Iraqi forces; others in guarding the huge embassy-complex in Baghdad; and still more in what will be described as support-roles at Balad and other air-bases that have acquired a distinct air of permanency. In addition to these core military contingents, there will be many US security-contractors, themselves mostly ex-military. 

What will happen in the sixteen months between August 201o and December 2011 is pivotal. It is probable that at some point the remaining 50,000 American troops in Iraq will be designated “non-combat” – a wordplay that barely conceals the establishment by the US army of a new type of unit known as an “advise-and-assist” brigade (AAB). A new report explains their role:

“These brigades are to have traditional strike capabilities, as well as advisory roles, the ability to augment local forces with ‘combat enablers’ and command and control (C2) tools to support its own manoeuvre units and indigenous units” (see Daniel Wasserbly, “US forces analyse future role of advise-and-assist brigades in Iraq”, Jane’s International Defence Review, January 2010).

In effect, army units are both taking on new roles but retaining their existing and full combat-capabilities. It follows that their phased withdrawal will depend very much on the extent to which Iraq becomes a more peaceful state in which the interests of the United States and other western interests are secured.

An evolving strategy

The pattern of insurgent activity in Iraq suggests that this outcome is uncertain. In the course of 2009, the levels of violence across Iraq tended to stabilise after an initial decline. Around 5,000 Iraqi civilians were killed, and it was the first time since 2006 that there was no significant slump during the period (see “Civilian deaths from violence in 2009”, Iraq Body Count, 31 December 2009). 

There were, moreover, significant changes in the types of violence. The first few months of the year were dominated by major suicide-bombing attacks on mosques or crowded markets in Shi’a areas. The intention was most likely to provoke sectarian antagonism and then encourage fearful members of the Sunni minority to see the insurgents as their defenders, leading in turn to a violent destabilisation of the government in the run-up to the Iraqi elections on 7 March 2010.

In the second half of 2009, paramilitary groups began to target large government ministries in suicide-attacks. These naturally were located in high-security zones, but the assailants found ways of penetrating the cordons; in a series of attacks in August, October and December, five sets of government offices and ministries were hit and scores of civil servants killed (see “Iraq: the path of war”, 18 December 2009).

These attacks in particular caused deep unease among the American and allied agencies, not least because of the levels of security that had to be breached (see Roger Hardy, “Violence returns to Iraq”, BBC News, 8 December 2009). By the end of 2009, there were serious concerns as to whether the Iraqi security forces were capable even of protecting government buildings, and deep suspicions that the insurgents had access to inside information.

The operations extended beyond Baghdad, and they included frontal-assaults on Iraqi security forces. In Anbar’s provincial capital of Ramadi, for example, two suicide-bomb attacks in early January 2010 in a part of the city regarded as safe killed twenty-four people (mostly police-officers) and wounded around sixty, including the provincial governor Qassim Mohammed.

Even this surge left the overall degree of violence in Iraq much lower than it had been in 2007.  In this respect, a further shift in the focus of activity in the past ten days is notable: namely, towards hitting “symbolic” targets and a return to the mass killing of Shi’a civilians.

The biggest coordinated actions in several months were launched on 25 January 2010, when in the space of nine minutes coordinated blasts targeted three major hotels frequented by foreign visitors (and western journalists). Again despite high security, bombs were detonated close to the Ishtar Sheraton, the Babylon and the Hamra hotels, killing thirty-six people and wounding seventy-one (see Anthony Shadid & John Leland, “Baghdad Blasts Shatter Sense of Security in Capital”, New York Times, 26 January 2010). On the following day it was the turn of the Iraqi interior-ministry’s forensics offices, where at least seventeen people were killed and many more wounded.

The hotel incidents aroused most international comment, but the interior-ministry attack caused the greatest domestic worry, especially from civil servants (see Anthony Shadid, “Latest Bombings Add New Layer of Anxiety and Suspicion in Baghdad”, New York Times, 27 January 2010). Indeed, the fact that a great escalation of security since August 2009 has had little apparent effect is creating pervasive fear among government officials (see Khalid al-Ansary & Hadeel Kamil, “Civil Servants Fear More Attacks”, Institute for War and Peace Reporting – Iraq Crisis Report 320, 21 January 2010).

The spate of attacks on government targets has been accompanied by the targeting of Shi’a citizens – in this case, pilgrims taking part in the major religious festival centred on Karbala, 80 kilometres southwest of Baghdad. On 1 February, a female suicide-bomber killed more than forty people among a large crowd of pilgrims; and on 3 February there were three more attacks, including a huge car-bomb in Karbala itself which killed twenty-three people and injured scores more.

A stressed project

This combination of events and trends indicates that powerful paramilitary groups in Iraq (including al-Qaida) retain their ability to organise, plan and coordinate a deadly campaign. Their success in targeting some of the most heavily protected districts of Baghdad and other cities is a sign of a rooted influence among some sections of the Sunni population. Washington’s military and political analysts are deeply concerned that the campaign reflects a reorganisation of the insurgency that could further weaken official Iraqi security forces at the very time that US troops prepare to reduce their own role and depart the scene.

The worry from the Pentagon’s perspective is that the forthcoming “advise-and-assist” brigades may have to do much more than these bland terms suggest: namely, remain in Iraq in large numbers and even engage in direct combat-operations against insurgents. That, in turn, implies that further stresses will be felt throughout the US military just as the surge in Afghanistan reaches its peak later in 2010. 

Most Americans and citizens of other western countries may think that the Iraq war is more or less over, and that whatever remains of the conflict has nothing to do with Afghanistan. It seems probable that both beliefs are wrong. The implications for the United States, and other foreign powers waging the Afghanistan war, are serious.

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