The standoff between two U.S. “allies” this weekend in the heart of Baghdad is a harbinger of things to come in Iraq. The showdown between Iraq’s central government security forces and members of Sunni militias, known as "Awakenings," had nothing to do with the size of the U.S. troop presence in Iraq and almost everything to do with enduring tensions in Iraq—multiple struggles for power between competing Iraqi factions.
Some may use this flare-up of violence in central Baghdad as an argument that U.S. troops should stay in Iraq longer than the date agreed upon by the Bush administration and the Maliki government last year. Some might also try to argue that the troop drawdown announced by President Barack Obama—which is very much in line with what the Iraqi government got the Bush administration to agree to before leaving office—should not continue. But leaving troops in Iraq would be the wrong thing to do for both Iraq and the United States’ long-term interests.
What happened this weekend in central Baghdad between Iraqi security forces and members of the Sunni Awakening groups was not unexpected, in large part because many of the tactics used in the 2007 “surge” of U.S. forces built a shaky and unstable foundation. Violence broke out in the central Baghdad neighborhood of Fadhil—just a few miles north of the Green Zone—when Iraqi troops backed by U.S. forces arrested Adil Mashadani, an “Awakening” militia leader on charges of terrorist and sectarian crimes. According to news reports, Mashadani allegedly maintained ties with Al Qaeda forces, helped plan roadside bombing attacks against Iraqi security forces, and ran an extortion racket that squeezed Fadhil residents for tens of thousands of dollars.
Whether these specific charges against Mashadani are true or not, it shouldn’t surprise anyone that someone like Mashadani was on the payroll of the U.S. taxpayers. I argued in a paper on the Awakening groups more than a year ago that the same U.S. tactics that contributed to the so-called “success” of the surge were actually undermining the process of helping Iraq bridge internal divisions. The tactics employed during the surge helped create alternate centers of power in supporting new militias, which built a shaky foundation that led to short-term security gains at the expense of longer-term political stability.
The stated goal of the surge, according to the Bush administration, was to reduce violence in order to help Iraq’s political factions bridge their divides over power, but that has simply not occurred in a meaningful way. Iraq remains plagued by enduring political divisions, as I argued last September in a paper on Iraq’s political transition after the surge.
A key tactic used in the Iraq surge could essentially be likened to what was done in the run-up to the current financial and banking crisis in the United States—steps were taken to make things look better than they actually were, while real problems lurked beneath unaddressed. A day of reckoning must at some point occur, because the structural imbalances of power in Iraq will naturally address themselves, as sure as the force of gravity that keeps us all sitting in our chairs. The inexorable force in Iraq is demographics. Iraq is a Shia-majority country now governed by Shia factions, with nominal participation by Sunni forces. This represents a fundamental shift from the balance of power during decades of Saddam Hussein’s rule, which ended nearly six years ago. Ever since his regime’s ouster in 2003, the fundamental story has been one in which Iraqis adjust themselves to the new reality of Shia rule in Iraq.
This weekend’s incident was the first crack in a shaky foundation constructed by the 2007 surge of U.S. troops—a foundation that largely glossed over long-standing political rivalries. And frankly this tension between the central government and these independent militia groups is less dangerous than the growing tensions between Arab and Kurdish factions in northern Iraq.
What does this mean for U.S. policy? The incident this weekend—which we’ll likely see more of in the coming year throughout Iraq—will lead some to say that the Obama administration should abandon the plans set by the Bush administration—at the behest of Iraq’s leaders—to set a plan for withdrawal with a date certain. Many of those voices in favor of staying will likely be the same ones guilty of the original sin of the Iraq war—those who favored the war in 2002 and 2003 in the first place.
The worst thing that the United States could do is actually slow the pace of its troop redeployments in the face of incidents like this. First, the United States has more pressing strategic challenges such as Afghanistan and Pakistan that require it to shift resources that are simply unavailable as long as it remains overinvested in Iraq.
And second, U.S. troops should continue looking to the exit for Iraq’s sake. Iraq will never be able to achieve a stable internal consolidation of power so long as the United States remains heavily engaged militarily. The thing needed most if Iraqis are going to move beyond both the trauma inflicted by Saddam Hussein and the difficult post-Saddam years is a reassertion of their sovereignty. For Iraq’s internal power balances to reach a stable equilibrium, the United States needs to let go and allow Iraqis to take control of their own affairs.