The retreat from Afghanistan is proving hard enough for the United States. But its military return to Iraq is much more serious.
The United States has so far failed to secure an agreement with Hamid Karzai's government to deploy some forces in Afghanistan after the main troop withdrawal at the end of 2014. Washington’s intention had been to keep up to 10,000 military personnel there, some of them instructors for the Afghan security forces but many engaged in drone-operations and special-forces activities. The aim was to prevent Afghanistan becoming a safe area for al-Qaida-linked groups with a transnational agenda. There is now little prospect of securing this aim, at least not on the scale originally envisaged.
It now looks likely that the Taliban and other armed opposition groups will emerge after the western withdrawal to control territory in south and south-east Afghanistan, and may even gain some position in governance. The latter probability has been increased by the Taliban's shift towards a role in local administration and even some social-welfare provision (which some have called the “Hamas-isation” of the movement).
Afghanistan has had some local development successes, but overall is still mired in poverty and insecurity. The production of opium and heroin has not been curbed. In their more candid moments, even western governments and officials recognise the failures of their long occupation of the country.
The retreat from Afghanistan, however, looks straightforward compared with what is now unfolding in Iraq.
A violent legacy
It took another five years and a change of president in Washington for all the major US combat-troop units to be withdrawn by the end of 2011, leaving only a few troops for training purposes and to guard US diplomats and other civilians. But after two more years, a renewed descent into violence echoes the worst days of the war in 2005-06. On 9 March 2013, for example, a suicide-bomb killed forty-five people and wounded 157 in the mainly Shi’a southern city of Hilla, the latest in a series of attacks directed either against the Iraqi government or Shi’a communities.
United Nations estimates suggest that in 2006, over 34,000 Iraqi civilians died - making it the worst year of the war. By 2008 the number had fallen to fewer than 7,000, and then to around 3,000 in each of the following three years (see “Iraqi violence grows ahead of elections”, IISS Strategic Comments, 24 Feb 2014). In 2013, however, the figure rose to nearly 8,000, and more than 1,000 people (the great majority civilians) died violently in January 2014 alone.
The Baghdad government’s response has been to use brutal force against what is now a major urban insurgency affecting much of central Iraq (spreading, as with Hilla, to other cities). The prime minister Nouri al-Maliki believes that strong repression of Sunni Islamist paramilitaries is the only option, not least to gain sufficient votes from a fearful Shi’a majority to enable him to win the April 2014 election. There is little evidence that the military strategy will work; government forces may have prevented radical Islamists from dominating Ramadi, but the latter are very much in control of Fallujah - the “city of mosques”, and a powerful symbol of wartime resistance to what was seen as foreign occupation.
An open border
Barack Obama's administration fears the rise of radical Sunni paramilitaries in Syria, but many analysts around the DC beltway caution that Iraq is a neglected zone of al-Qaida-like resurgence. Their reward is the US provision of many new items of military equipment to its erstwhile allies in Baghdad. So the US-trained Iraqi air-force has received six Apache helicopters, with as many as twenty-four more planned; both Hellfire missiles and reconnaissance-drones are already deployed in the field. Much more will follow as Iraq becomes a major recipient of US military aid (see “How should the United States react to al-Qaida regaining influence in Iraq?", Council of Foreign Relations, 11 March 2014).
From Washington’s perspective this is one prong of a two-part strategy, whose other is determined pressure on Nouri al-Maliki's government to avoid using excessive violence against the rebels. The US sees no alternative - not when al-Qaida affiliates now control a significant city which might become a springboard to much greater advances. The fear is that this would in turn allow radical Islamists with a transnational agenda to create a safe haven eventually stretching well beyond Iraq and even neighbouring Syria.
Washington's calculation may seem reasonable, but it misses one element. Islamist radicals across the region see the US developing an ever closer relationship with the Baghdad government in order to ensure that it stays in power. There is still no large-scale return of US combat-troops to Iraq, but drones and helicopter-gunships will be there soon.
This can be all too easily depicted as the “far enemy” reasserting its power and presence after being forced out by violent resistance. Many western politicians are greatly concerned about the appalling violence in Syria, but the evolving civil war in Iraq could have greater longer-term impact.