Implications of the Exit of US Forces from Iraq

Entanglement in Iraq: Light at the End of the Tunnel?
Strategic Assessment, December 2007, Vol. 10, No. 3
Ephraim Kam, INSS

This article points out that the only way for the US to avoid even greater negative consequences for them in retreating from Iraq is to prevent Iran from getting the bomb. But even that she is retreating from.

[..] Even when the administration, the current one or its replacement, decides to withdraw the main part of its forces from Iraq, it is likely to do so gradually. It will presumably leave behind a smaller force in Iraq for an additional time period and position a force in the Persian Gulf in order to try to assist the Iraqi regime from the outside while it deters Iran from intervening in Iraq.
There are several conditions that could impel the administration to remove most of its forces from Iraq:

    · An assessment that there is no longer any chance to achieve ethnic reconciliation and stabilize the regime in Iraq, and that the US will continue to pay a heavy price in casualties.

    · Increased domestic pressure on the administration to end the Iraqi chapter. In any event, the new administration will not be bound to the policy of its predecessor.

    · The expectation that an announced withdrawal of forces will force the sides in Iraq to accelerate dialogue between them to prevent deterioration of the situation.

Stabilizing Iraq’s regime and security situation, if at all achievable, will take years; but the American administration does not have years at its disposal due to internal pressures to disengage from Iraq. This means that there is a reasonable possibility that the US will ultimately remove its forces from Iraq without having succeeded in stabilizing the regime. The withdrawal of forces from a situation of instability will have severe repercussions.

The departure of forces will erase whatever hope and expectations are left among Iraqis to arrive at an agreed upon settlement, and will reduce the chances of stabilizing the regime. The US is the sole entity standing behind the construction of the Iraqi security forces, and its absence will propel the dissolution of the Iraqi force and its division along sectarian lines. With no American forces in place, there will not be any initiatives for improving internal security, and no military force to seal Iraq’s borders with Syria and Iran to protect against the infiltration of jihad fighters and terrorist elements.

The departure of forces from Iraq without stabilized security would have severe and negative implications for the situation.[2] Inter-ethnic violence and militia control over sizable areas would likely expand, leading to increased ethnic cleansing and the flight of refugees within and from Iraq. Removing the American barrier would likely enable strengthened cooperation between militias and external agents, a setting that would allow al-Qaeda to expand its footholds and freedom of action in Iraq. In addition, the spread of violence is liable to bring forth even graver developments, such as:

    · The outbreak of a full civil war. Today there are already the first signs of civil war in Iraq: the activity of armed militias, sectarian penetration into the ranks of security forces, mass terrorist attacks, and ethnic cleansing. Diminished chances of arriving at national reconciliation may well convince extremist leaders that compromise is no longer possible and force is necessary to establish facts on the ground. This pivotal change would likely occur if the security forces themselves disintegrate and transform into sectarian militias.

    · The division of Iraq. Almost all Iraqi elements (aside from the Kurds), all of Iraq’s neighbors, and the US do not want to see Iraq divided, given: the assumption that a divided Iraq would be weak; the difficulty involved in splitting provinces with mixed populations; and the difficulty in division of control over oil sources as Sunni regions are devoid of oil riches. However some of the conditions for Iraq’s division already exist: quasi-independent Kurdish autonomy, a weak central government, the activity of sectarian militias, and agreement for the new Iraqi constitution to support a federal structure for the country. If violence climbs to a higher level following the departure of American forces, it is likely that Iraqi leaders will come to the conclusion that there is no choice but to make the de facto divided Iraq the official reality.

    · Iraq’s weakness and the violent struggles within the country are liable to turn Iraq into a safe haven for terror elements that will operate within Iraq as emissaries of the different sects, and outwardly, against moderate Islamic regimes, American and Western targets, and Israel.

    · The departure of American forces is liable to cause increased intervention in Iraq by Iraq’s neighbors. Turkey is already on the verge of military intervention against Kurdish rebels in northern Iraq. If the Iraqi Kurds take steps towards achieving independence, Turkey and Iran would likely intervene in the Kurdish region. Iran is in any case deeply involved in some of the Shiite militias in Iraq; the evacuation of American forces would likely open up additional possibilities for Iran to intensify its influence in Shiite provinces.

The departure of US forces will considerably strengthen Iran’s regional status. Iran’s strategic situation already improved with the fall of Saddam Hussein’s regime, which removed the Iraqi threat hovering over Iran and dismissed the only regional force that could counterbalance Iran’s status in the Gulf. A withdrawal by the US against the backdrop of failure would enhance Iran’s situation and impact in the region even more, and in this regard, reinforce the image of the Shiite axis threat. There would be similar implications, though more limited in dimensions, for Syria’s situation. Nevertheless, the American threat to Iran will not be removed; and if the US demonstrates its determination in handling the Iranian problem, especially the nuclear issue (including via military pressure) it would somewhat counterbalance the picture vis-à-vis Iran’s increasing strength.

If the US removes its forces from Iraq under the cloud of failure, it would no doubt harm US credibility as well as its status and deterrent ability, at least in the immediate term. Its Arab allies would likely be skeptical as to just how much they can rely on the US and to what extent the US is able to defend them and their regimes in times of distress. The stamp of failure in Iraq combined with internal reservations in the US over the administration’s moves are liable to limit the administration’s ability to take far-reaching and forceful measures when the need arises, mainly in the Middle East – and that includes the Iranian nuclear issue.

Still, a lot will depend on the future approach and policy of the American administration. If it is determined to rectify the damage to its status and prove that its hands are not tied by the Iraqi chapter, it is reasonable to assume it will be able to restore its status and image as time goes by. The administration can note that even after its entanglement in Iraq, the US remains the sole world superpower, at least for the coming years. The test case for this is likely to be the handling of the Iranian nuclear threat. If the American administration proves its determination, shrewdness, and consistency in tackling this issue, and especially if its efforts are crowned a success and Iran’s nuclear program is stopped, it would be sufficient to counterbalance the failure in Iraq.

And finally, there are the implications for Israel. The biggest gain for Israel from the war in Iraq has already been achieved: the Iraqi threat, which once constituted an important component in the set of threats facing Israel, has been removed, at least for many years. However in other respects, matters are liable to balance negatively against Israel. The harm to US deterrent ability, the possible improvement of Iran’s strategic position, the strengthening of the Shiite axis, the possibility of Iraq turning into a regional hub of terror, and increased threats against moderate Arab countries headed by Jordan do not bear good tidings for Israel. Moreover, the key to the future strategic balance of power, in regard to Israel as well, will probably be the outcome of the Iranian nuclear issue. American success here, whether by political or military means, could counter the impression of failure in Iraq – or vice versa.

[1]In theory the American administration had two further options: to support one of the ethnic groups in the internal struggle and help it rule Iraq, or to bring about the partition of Iraq, but these approaches were even less practical. See Olga Oliker et al., U.S. Policy Options for Iraq: A Reassessment (RAND, 2007).
[2]See Ephraim Kam, “Marching Johnny Home: Evacuating the American Forces from Iraq,” Strategic Assessment 8, no. 4 (2006): 13-20.

December 10, 2007 | Comments Off on Implications of the Exit of US Forces from Iraq

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