The Ongoing Iraqi Tragedy and the role of Obama

A great deal is being shown and written in recent days about the events in Iraq, with all concerned lamenting the wasted lives of not only the thousands of American soldiers, but also the hundreds of thousands of Iraqis, both soldiers and civilians.  Most readers will remember the surge ordered by President George W. Bush, and that fact that the result was the passover to incoming President Obama in January 2009 of a largely pacified Iraq, with the foundations for a stable government.

The country was Obama’s to lose, and lose it he has.  Among the recent consequences of the ISIS surge is the takeover of Mosul, which netted the insurgents over $400 million in gold that was stored in the central bank there.  Many are apprehensive about the potential for ISIS acquisition of other assets of the Maliki government, including the 140 Abrams tanks that were sent to Iraq in late 2011, and the more recent transfer of two dozen Apache attack helicopters.

But the devil, as they say, is in the details, and back in late April, Pulitzer Prize winner Dexter Filkins wrote an expansive article for publication in The New Yorker magazine about the disintegration of Iraq, the origins of the present predicament, and the principle players.  Filkins has the cred to write on the subject, as he was a Middle-East reporter for the New York Times, and he was based in Iraq from 2003 through 2006.

The following is a lengthy excerpt from Filkins’ article, but it is important for the reader to understand that the piece was written in late April, just days before the May 2, 2014 Iraqi elections in which Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki won his third term.  In addition, some named persons should be further identified, as follows:  Sky refers to Emma Sky, a civilian advisor to the American military forces;  Suleimani refers to Qassem Suleimani, the head of the Iranian Quds Force;  and Sadr refers to Moqtada al-Sadr, the Iranian-backed guerrilla who made Basra his stronghold.

In this excerpt, Filkins writes that, in the Iraqi parliamentary elections of March, 2010, over a year after Obama’s inauguration:

Maliki’s Shiite Islamist alliance, the State of Law, had suffered an embarrassing loss.  The greatest share of votes went to a secular, pro-Western coalition called Iraqiya, led by Ayad Allawi, a persistent enemy of the Iranians.  “These were election results we could only have dreamed of,” a former American diplomat told me.  “The surge had worked.  The war was winding down.  And, for the first time in the history of the Arab world, a secular, Western-leaning alliance won a free and fair election.”

But even though Allawi’s group had won the most votes, it had not captured a majority, leaving both him and Maliki scrambling for coalition partners.  And despite the gratifying election results, American officials said, the Obama Administration concluded that backing Allawi would be too difficult if he was opposed by Shiites and by their supporters in Iran.  “There was no way that the Shia were not going to provide the next Prime Minister,” James Jeffrey, the American Ambassador at the time, told me.  “Iraq will not work if they don’t.  Allawi was a goner.”

Shortly after the elections, an Iraqi judge, under pressure from the Prime Minister, awarded Maliki the first chance to form a government.  The ruling directly contradicted the Iraqi constitution, but American officials did not contest it.  “The intent of the constitution was clear, and we had the notes of the people who drafted it,” Sky, the civilian adviser, said.  “The Americans had already weighed in for Maliki.”

But it was the meeting with Suleimani that was ultimately decisive.  According to American officials, he broke the Iraqi deadlock by leaning on Sadr to support Maliki, in exchange for control of several government ministries.  Suleimani’s conditions for the new government were sweeping.  Maliki agreed to make Jalal Talabani, the pro-Iranian Kurdish leader, the new President, and to neutralize the Iraqi National Intelligence Service, which was backed by the C.I.A.  Most dramatic, he agreed to expel all American forces from the country by the end of 2011.

The U.S. obtained a transcript of the meeting, and knew the exact terms of the agreement.  Yet it decided not to contest Iran’s interference.  At a meeting of the National Security Council a month later, the White House signed off on the new regime.  Officials who had spent much of the previous decade trying to secure American interests in the country were outraged.  “We lost four thousand five hundred Americans only to let the Iranians dictate the outcome of the war?  To result in strategic defeat?” the former American diplomat told me.  “Fuck that.”  At least one U.S. diplomat in Baghdad resigned in protest.  And Ayad Allawi, the secular Iraqi leader who captured the most votes, was deeply embittered.  “I needed American support,” he told me last summer.  “But they wanted to leave, and they handed the country to the Iranians.  Iraq is a failed state now, an Iranian colony.”

American diplomats made one last effort to preserve their influence.  In a meeting, Jeffrey asked Maliki to commit to several goals in his second term: granting amnesty to thousands of Sunnis who had been detained without charges; dismantling prisons where American officials believed that Iraqis were being tortured; and signing an agreement that would allow American troops to stay in the country.  Later that year, the U.S. brokered a deal to bring Allawi and other members of his coalition into the government.  In time, Maliki either ignored or jettisoned every promise.  “He looked us straight in the eyes and lied,” the former diplomat told me.

The consequences became clear when negotiations began over the crucial question of withdrawing American troops after 2011.  The leaders of all the major Iraqi parties had privately told American commanders that they wanted several thousand military personnel to remain, to train Iraqi forces and to help track down insurgents.  The commanders told me that Maliki, too, said that he wanted to keep troops in Iraq.  But he argued that the long-standing agreement that gave American soldiers immunity from Iraqi courts was increasingly unpopular; parliament would forbid the troops to stay unless they were subject to local law.

President Obama, too, was ambivalent about retaining even a small force in Iraq.  For several months, American officials told me, they were unable to answer basic questions in meetings with Iraqis — like how many troops they wanted to leave behind — because the Administration had not decided.  “We got no guidance from the White House,” Jeffrey told me.  “We didn’t know where the President was.  Maliki kept saying, ‘I don’t know what I have to sell.’ ”  At one meeting, Maliki said that he was willing to sign an executive agreement granting the soldiers permission to stay, if he didn’t have to persuade the parliament to accept immunity.  The Obama Administration quickly rejected the idea.  “The American attitude was: Let’s get out of here as quickly as possible,” Sami al-Askari, the Iraqi member of parliament, said.

The last American combat troops departed Iraq on December 18, 2011.  Some U.S. officials believe that Maliki never intended to allow soldiers to remain; in a recent e-mail, he denied ever supporting such a plan, saying, “I am the owner of the idea of withdrawing the U.S. troops.”  Many Iraqi and American officials are convinced that even a modest force would have been able to prevent chaos — not by fighting but by providing training, signals intelligence, and a symbolic presence.  “If you had a few hundred here, not even a few thousand, they would be co-operating with you, and they would become your partners,” Askari told me.  “But, when they left, all of them left.  There’s no one to talk to about anything.”

I have always had doubts about the idea of nation-building, particularly if the conditions are not right.  They were right in Japan and Germany in the mid-1940s, because the military forces of both countries were in abject defeat.  In Iraq, the American Army fought their enemy to a standstill, but President Obama’s assurances to the contrary, Al-Qaeda and the other extreme Islamist factions were never soundly defeated and disarmed.  And even more telling, the U.S. government maintained occupational forces in both Japan and Germany for decades after the end of hostilities, a historical precedent that apparently suggested nothing to our Nobel Peace-Prize winning Commander In Chief.

The full article, HERE, is long but very informative.