Three years after President Barack Obama’s announcing an end to the Iraqi campaign, the Americans are coming on the Iraqi soil again. While speaking at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, on Dec 14, 2011, Obama said: “We’re leaving behind a sovereign, stable and self-reliant Iraq... Over the last three years, nearly 150,000 U.S. troops have left Iraq. And over the next few days, a small group of American soldiers will begin the final march out of that country... As your Commander-in-Chief, I can tell you that it will indeed be a part of history.” (1)
Could Obama and his advisors foresee then that just three years after they would come back to the Middle East to fight the ISIS and other terrorist organizations? What three years are we talking about if no more than ten days were needed to call into question Obama’s remarks in U.S. Military Academy-West Point? While speaking at the United States Military Academy Commencement Ceremony on May 28, 2014, the US president said that “America’s longest-war ever [meaning the Afghani campaign] prepares to finally be put to rest.” Obama also stressed the need to confront terrorists working across Syria’s borders. “I will work with Congress to ramp up support for those in the Syrian opposition who offer the best alternative to terrorists and brutal dictators,” he said. (2)
Just ten days later, on June 9, 2014, the Middle East faced a new blast of war: Iraq’s second biggest city, Mosul, was captured by the ISIS. The Iraqis had two divisions of a total of 20,000-30,000 men deployed in the area, while the invaders “numbered between 400 and 800 fighters by various estimates.” (3)
In 2009, when the US-led "train-and-equip" effort reached its zenith, the Iraqi army fielded 55 combat brigades with approximately 210,000 troops. The Iraqi Ministry of Interior (MoI) fielded around 30 smaller brigades, totaling around 120,000 troops. Today the Iraqi army fields 40 weak brigades with a total combat strength of around 48,000 troops. In contrast, the MoI survived the summer comparatively well and now fields 24 brigades, totaling around 36,000 troops. The gap has narrowed between the two security ministries. (4)
According to Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, Iraq will need no less than three years of intensive reforms to be able to fully restore the fighting capacity of its army. Meanwhile, the Iraqi authorities keep blaming the US and other western powers for being slow in supplying them with military assistance, or, to be more precise, with modern arms.
The fall of Mosul and the ISIS’s surge into Central Iraq was a fiasco not only for the Iraqi authorities but also for the US Central Command, a force responsible for Iraq and Syria. This is a vast territory spangled with US military bases and monitored round the clock. So, one can hardly explain what prevents the Americans - who bill themselves as the global “all-seeing eye” - from being at least relatively accurate in predicting events in today’s “non-linear” world. And it hardly befits such an omnipresent global power to be unaware of a military campaign that is bound to start in just ten days.
The Americans have turned the once “self-reliant” Iraq into “the most dangerous place to be” in the Middle East. Even their anti-Jihad allies admit this: in their joint survey the International Centre for the Study of Radicalization and Political Violence (ICSR) and BBC said that in Nov 2014 alone Iraq saw 1,770 deaths in 233 attacks, ranging from shootings to suicide bombings. The methods the ISIS is using are by far crueler than the ones applied by its predecessor, Al-Qaeda.
In Nov 2014, the ISIS killed 2,206 people in Iraq and Syria or 44% of all Jihad victims, while Al-Qaeda killed some 3,000 people in total throughout 2013. So, it turns out that the America’s war against Al-Qaeda has failed to root out terrorism from the Middle East, in general, and Iraq, in particular. And even more, either accidentally or deliberately, the Americans put into life an “improved” version of Al-Qaeda, a force they are “successfully” fighting against now. Guardian quotes one of former prisoners of Camp Bucca, a jail near the Iraqi city of Basra, as saying that it was there in 2004 that the emir of the ISIS Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi acquired his radical ideas.
According to UNAM, fighting and other violence in Iraq killed at least 1,375 people including 790 civilians in Jan 2015. The highest death rate was registered in Baghdad. A total of 2,240 people were wounded, including civilians, soldiers and policemen. This, however, is not a complete toll as the UN has no statistics from almost 30% of the Iraqi territory controlled by the ISIS. Earlier the Iraqi authorities admitted that 2014 was the deadliest year since 2007, with over 15,000 killed and 22,000 wounded.
Since 2011, Iraq has become even more disintegrated, with corruption thriving in its government and army. If this is what Obama called a “sovereign, stable” state just three years ago, then, what kind of a state can we expect to see in Ukraine in some three years?! - for today this country is receiving very similar compliments from the US.
Those in Washington who are well informed of the nuances of the White House’s policy point to Obama’s growing need for some foreign political success. As you may know, Obama has no chance to run for the third term. So, he may just wish to improve his very low rating and to leave some worthy political legacy. A poll held by ABC News and Washington Post before the Democrats’ loss in midterm elections into the Congress (Nov 4 2014), showed that only 44% of Americans approved of Obama’s presidency.
There is one explanation for Obama’s low rating: today the Americans have quite weak strategy in the regions they traditionally were interested in. Now they announce reorientation from the Middle East to the Asia-Pacific, then they say they are going to stay in the region. They miss no single chance to cross swards with the Russians. What we see as a result is all but a well-considered foreign policy. The Americans keep going from one extreme to another. So, the gap between Obama’s “pacifism” and the Republicans’ calls for a tougher policy is shrinking.
Obama not just needs a foreign political success. The two years left in office are forcing him to search for common grounds with the Congress majority. And those people are far from pacifism. It would be wrong though to put everything down to Obama’s compliance or falling rating. Though being inconsistent and predictable, Obama has still preserved certain traditions. But alas they are not the ones that could foster stability on regional and global levels.
Military strategy has been the pike of the US foreign policy over past decades. In the Middle East the Americans have kind of gotten addicted to holding more and more military campaigns. Since their invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, they have sent missions to Iraq, Libya, Syria and again Iraq. No sooner had they finished – or pretended to have finished – their campaign in Afghanistan than they found another place they could apply their military-political activity to. Their three-phase strategy to fight (or to feign fighting) the ISIL was just some faltering attempt to be a little more predictable for their new partners in the Middle East.
In appointing defense secretaries Obama has always preferred candidates supported by the Republicans – no matter which of the two parties they represented. In the autumn 2008 he kept in office Robert Gates. His last appointment, one of the “demonizers” of Russia Ashton Carter, is also part of this attitude. In the military the US has some strategy, but in diplomacy it seems to be at sea. The Pentagon is gradually gaining foothold in the country’s foreign policy. And this system is getting stronger with each new Middle East campaign.
Few experts have noticed the fact that Obama’s Fort Bragg and West Point remarks were made from “Republican rostrums.” Three years ago at Fort Bragg the US President spoke about “a sovereign, stable and self-reliant Iraq.” Quite recently from the same place the Americans sent 250 paratroopers to Baghdad and Erbil.
Some experts believe that the Americans have just airbrushed their real Middle East strategy in hope to mislead their enemies and even partners. Among those seeing some theatricality in the US ongoing campaign is Iran. Perhaps the Iranians are right. Perhaps the Americans are actually pretending to be some simple Simons today so as to make use of the continuing Middle East chaos and to cut their way to global leadership. If this is true, what we see in the hands of the Americans today is nothing but a strategy to turn whole countries and regions into chaos. Further attempts to foster violence and to shatter and topple regimes in the Middle East may prove this scenario. In fact, that region has become a testing ground for the US administrations.
(1) Remarks by the President and First Lady on the End of the War in Iraq, Fort Bragg, The White House, Office of the Press Secretary, December, 14, 2011.
(2) Remarks by the President at the United States Military Academy Commencement Ceremony, U.S. Military Academy-West Point, The White House, Office of the Press Secretary, May, 28, 2014.
(3) Michael Knights, Iraq War III Has Now Begun // The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, June 11, 2014.
(4) Michael Knights, Let the Iraqi Army Have Its Day // Al Jazeera, January 6, 2015.
EAD Middle East Bureau