FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

Did the US Learn Anything in Iraq?

by PATRICK COCKBURN

President Obama is likely to announce in the coming days that he will withdraw all US combat troops from Iraq by August 2010. Many of these soldiers will end up in Afghanistan where the Taliban is getting stronger and the US-backed government weaker by the day. How much has the US learnt from its debacle in Iraq?

One lesson not learnt in Washington is that it is a bad idea to become involved in a war in any so-called “failed state”. This patronizing term suggests that if a state has failed, foreign intervention is justified and will face limited resistance. But the greatest US foreign policy disasters over the last generation have all been in places where organised government had largely collapsed.

There was Lebanon in 1983, when 242 US marines were blown up in Beirut, Somalia 10 years later, and Iraq after the overthrow of Saddam Hussein. The lesson, which applies to nowhere more than Afghanistan, is that societies with weak state structures devise lethally effective ways of defending themselves.

I remember an Iraqi neurosurgeon, who had just successfully defended his hospital in Baghdad against looters with a Kalashnikov in 2003, saying to me: “The Americans should remember that even Saddam Hussein had difficulty ruling this country.” Iraq was never like an east European autocracy. Even under Saddam every Iraqi owned a gun. Iraqis would not fight for Saddam’s regime, but they would fight for their own ethnic or sectarian community or their country. An error made by the US was to imagine that just because Shia and Sunni Arabs hated each other that Iraqi nationalism was not a potent force.

This conviction that a victory has already been won is leading American commentators to assume blandly that the US can leave behind 50,000 non-combat troops in Iraq without any Iraqi objection. This would also be contrary to the Status of Forces Agreement negotiated with enormous difficulty and after prolonged wrangling last year.

The greatest source of error for the Americans in Iraq was not a policy mistake but an abiding belief that they alone made the political weather. Anything good or bad which happened was the result of American action. Thus if the Sunni insurgency against American forces started to come to an end in the second half of 2007 it must be because of the “surge”, as the 30,000 extra US troops and more aggressive tactics on the ground were known. The real reason for the fall in violence had more to do with the Shia victory over the Sunni in an extraordinarily savage civil war, a reaction against Al-Qa’ida, and the ceasefire called by the Mehdi Army to which belonged most of the Shia death squads.

If the US intervention in Iraq proved anything it was that the Americans never had the strength to shape the political and military environment to their own liking. Yet well-reviewed books on Iraq still appear in which Iraqis have a walk-on role and when somebody pushes a button in Washington something happens in Baghdad. These misconceptions are important because the mythology about the supposed success of the “surge” is being promoted as a recipe for victory in Afghanistan.

This would not be the first time that false analogies between Iraq and Afghanistan have misled Washington. I was in Afghanistan during the war against the Taliban at the end of 2001 and the beginning of 2002 and one of the most striking features of the conflict was the lack of fighting. The warlords and their men, who had previously rallied to the Taliban, simply went home because they did not want to be bombed by US aircrafts and they were heavily bribed to do so. There was very little combat. Yet when I went to Washington to work in a think-tank for a few months later that year the Afghan war was being cited by the Bush administration as proof of America’s military omnipotence.

It is difficult to believe that the Obama administration is going to make as many crass errors as its predecessor. So amazed were the Iranians to see President Bush destroy their two most detested enemies in Afghanistan and Iraq in 2001 and 2003 that some theologians held that such stupidity must be divinely inspired and heralded the return of the Twelfth Imam and the Shia millennium.

The reinforced US military presence in Afghanistan risks provoking a backlash in which religion combines with nationalism to oppose foreign intervention. It is this that has been the real strength of movements like Hezbollah in Lebanon, Hamas in Gaza, the Mehdi Army in Iraq and the Taliban in Afghanistan which the US wants to eradicate.

PATRICK COCKBURN is the author of ‘The Occupation: War, resistance and daily life in Iraq‘, a finalist for the National Book Critics’ Circle Award for best non-fiction book of 2006. His new book ‘Muqtada! Muqtada al-Sadr, the Shia revival and the struggle for Iraq‘ is published by Scribner.

 

More articles by:

Patrick Cockburn is the author of  The Rise of Islamic State: ISIS and the New Sunni Revolution.

CounterPunch Magazine

minimag-edit

bernie-the-sandernistas-cover-344x550

zen economics

June 26, 2017
William Hawes – Jason Holland
Lies That Capitalists Tell Us
Chairman Brandon Sazue
Out of the Shadow of Custer: Zinke Proves He’s No “Champion” of Indian Country With his Grizzly Lies
Patrick Cockburn
Grenfell Tower: the Tragic Price of the Rolled-Back Stat
Joseph Mangano
Tritium: Toxic Tip of the Nuclear Iceberg
Ray McGovern
Hersh’s Big Scoop: Bad Intel Behind Trump’s Syria Attack
Roy Eidelson
Heart of Darkness: Observations on a Torture Notebook
Geoff Beckman
Why Democrats Lose: the Case of Jon Ossoff
Matthew Stevenson
Travels Around Trump’s America
David Macaray
Law Enforcement’s Dirty Little Secret
Colin Todhunter
Future Shock: Imagining India
Yoav Litvin
Animals at the Roger Waters Concert
Binoy Kampmark
Pride in San Francisco
Stansfield Smith
North Koreans in South Korea Face Imprisonment for Wanting to Return Home
Hamid Yazdan Panah
Remembering Native American Civil Rights Pioneer, Lehman Brightman
James Porteous
Seventeen-Year-Old Nabra Hassanen Was Murdered
Weekend Edition
June 23, 2017
Friday - Sunday
Jeffrey St. Clair
Democrats in the Dead Zone
Gary Leupp
Trump, Qatar and the Danger of Total Confusion
Andrew Levine
The “Democracies” We Deserve
Jeffrey St. Clair - Joshua Frank
The FBI’s “Operation Backfire” and the Case of Briana Waters
Rob Urie
Cannibal Corpse
Joseph G. Ramsey
Savage Calculations: On the Exoneration of Philando Castile’s Killer
John Wight
Trump’s Attack on Cuba
Dave Lindorff
We Need a Mass Movement to Demand Radical Progressive Change
Brian Cloughley
Moving Closer to Doom
David Rosen
The Sex Offender: the 21st Century Witch
John Feffer
All Signs Point to Trump’s Coming War With Iran
Jennifer L. Lieberman
What’s Really New About the Gig Economy?
Pete Dolack
Analyzing the Failures of Syriza
Vijay Prashad
The Russian Nexus
Mike Whitney
Putin Tries to Avoid a Wider War With the US
Gregory Barrett
“Realpolitik” in Berlin: Merkel Fawns Over Kissinger
Louis Yako
The Road to Understanding Syria Goes Through Iraq
Graham Peebles
Grenfell Tower: A Disaster Waiting to Happen
Ezra Rosser
The Poverty State of Mind and the State’s Obligations to the Poor
Ron Jacobs
Andrew Jackson and the American Psyche
Pepe Escobar
Fear and Loathing on the Afghan Silk Road
Andre Vltchek
Why I Reject Western Courts and Justice
Lawrence Davidson
On Hidden Cultural Corruptors
Christopher Brauchli
The Routinization of Mass Shootings in America
Missy Comley Beattie
The Poor Need Not Apply
Martin Billheimer
White Man’s Country and the Iron Room
Joseph Natoli
What to Wonder Now
Tom Clifford
Hong Kong: the Chinese Meant Business
Thomas Knapp
The Castile Doctrine: Cops Without Consequences
Nyla Ali Khan
Borders Versus Memory
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail