Forget 2003: U.S. presence in Iraq today is more like it was in 1996

It has been asked of various candidates for next years U.S. presidential elections whether or not they would have invaded Iraq in 2003 knowing what we know now about that war and its outcome. It’s worrying to see so much retrospective would’ve, could’ve, should’ve kind of arguments being formulated, even at this very early stage. Presidential candidates should, rather, be talking about where Iraq is now and what the United States should or shouldn’t be doing, not what it should have done.

One expects Iraq to feature quite prominently in these elections whereby the foreign policy of the next administration is concerned. One also believes that given the crisis in Iraq today that talk about what one or another candidate claims they would have done over a decade ago is not only pointless, but could prove to be extremely counterproductive.

Such talk also comes at a point in time when U.S. presence on the ground in Iraq is at a bare minimum four years after the conclusion of the Iraq War (2003-11). It’s remarkable to recall that just back in 2008 (during the last presidential elections when what to do in Iraq was debated) the United States had approximately 150,000 troops on the ground and was just finishing up combating Al-Qaeda in the country’s Anbar province. Bar a small token number of troops presently there to secure American assets and interests, and advise Iraqi forces, the United States has no troops on the ground in Iraq today in any real combat capacity. It is simply targeting Daesh from the air wherever it can, often in support of various Iraqi and Kurdish paramilitary forces fighting that group on the ground.

U.S. troops deployed in Ramadi, August 2006. / Taken by Air Force Tech. Sgt. Jeremy T. Lock.
U.S. troops deployed in Ramadi, August 2006. / Taken by Air Force Tech. Sgt. Jeremy T. Lock.

In Anbar there was little they could do to stop the provincial capital Ramadi falling to Daesh bar launch some air strikes against abandoned American-made Iraqi military vehicles in the vicinity. Air power alone against such a group can only hope to have a relatively limited overall effect at best (even against conventional forces air power alone wouldn’t be sufficient in and of itself and Daesh, remember, is a highly irregular force which often uses guerrilla-type tactics).

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry in helicopter over Baghdad. March 2013.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry in helicopter over Baghdad. March 2013.

But also politically the United States can no longer exert its will as much as before, since its ability to effectively combat Daesh at this point in time is extremely limited. With a weak central government in Baghdad, which relies a lot on Shia militias to combat Daesh, it has become common in recent months for analysts to conclude that Iran may well prove to be the biggest winner in Iraq if and when Daesh is defeated. While the U.S. claims it has no issue with Iranian-backed Shia militias fighting Daesh, provided of course they are controlled by Baghdad, it’s obvious, even from a distant vantage point, that the command and control Baghdad exerts over these militias is considerably limited. The Iraqi government likely figures that given the pressing nature of the threat posed by Daesh any effective help they can get is welcome. And the Shia militias – many, not all, of whom are backed and supported by Iran – are proving to be quite a formidable opponent for Daesh. Much more so than the Iraqi Army. While U.S. air power is a good asset to have it cannot turn the tables without a substantial force on the ground combating Daesh. The Shia militias may be the only realistic game in town for Baghdad in light of the failure of their army and security forces.

When one looks at such this situation, whereby we have high-flying U.S. jets above the battlefield which are only able to have a relatively small overall effect on this complex war one is reminded of the U.S. position in Iraq as it existed back in 1996. The situation then, obviously, had its vast differences to the one that exists at present. But the similarities are well worth underscoring.

In the years between the 1991 Gulf War and the 2003 invasion the Americans, British and, for a time, the French patrolled the skies above northern and southern Iraq. The no-fly zones were undertaken to stop the Saddam Hussein regime from once again massacring Iraqi Shi’ites or the Kurds, both of whom had risen against his brutal rule in 1991. Not unlike today back in 1996 what the U.S. could do to alter or reverse rapidly unfolding developments on the ground in Iraq was extremely limited.

Massoud Barzani

In 1996 Iraq’s Kurds, whose region has been autonomous from Baghdad since 1991, were largely embroiled by infighting which was part of a three-year period which has become known as the Iraqi Kurdish Civil War. That civil war was fought between Massoud Barzani’s Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP) and Jalal Talabani’s Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), largely over control of highly valuable trading routes. It got so intense that at one stage Barzani’s forces even briefly worked with Saddam Hussein. When the PUK turned to neighbouring Iran Barzani in turn accepted direct Iraqi ground intervention into Kurdistan against the PUK. Approximately 30-40,000 Iraqi soldiers and Republican Guard forces entered Iraqi Kurdistan and overran the autonomous capital Erbil, driving out the PUK from there and killing many of its members. The KDP took power and the Iraqi forces withdrew, satisfied that the PUK had been dealt a substantial blow.

Launch of a U.S. Tomahawk cruise missile against Iraq.
Launch of a U.S. Tomahawk cruise missile against Iraq as part of Operation Desert Strike.

The Americans responded to that Iraqi offensive by firing Tomahawk cruise missiles (see Operation “Desert Strike”) at stationary military targets in the south of Iraq, a few hundred miles away from Iraqi Kurdistan, and extending the southern n0-fly zone, bringing it closer to Baghdad. Regardless of these moves Baghdad was successful in aiding the KDP in taking control over most of Iraqi Kurdistan. Barzani denied he was entering anything more than a temporary ad-hoc alliance with Saddam. This coordination was nevertheless quite remarkable, even nearly 20-years after the fact.

Since then of course the KDP and the PUK have entered peace talks and the situation in Iraq is much different than it was in 1996. However that episode was very informative in retrospect as it showed  how there was little to nothing the United States could do since it lacked a ground presence and even considerable influence on the ground.

Also ask yourself: If Massoud Barzani willingly coordinated with Saddam Hussein and allow his forces onto Kurdish territory against a rival Kurdish party of his do you in turn doubt that the Iraqi government would willingly permit, at least, ad-hoc Iranian help, both indirect and perhaps direct also (small numbers of Iranian troops have reportedly entered Iraq to support Iraqi operations to retake Beiji and the oil refinery there from Daesh, it wouldn’t be at all surprising if there are many more to come with more substantial heavy weapons in the foreseeable future) in order to defeat Daesh? Especially considering they likely have the wherewithal to combat Daesh more directly and forcibly. Nothing less than that will likely suffice against such a ruthless and unrelenting adversary.

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