With the last of the ISIS-held territory in Iraq recaptured, Iraqi officials are cheerfully proclaiming the war is over. Pentagon’s commanders, who recognize that this is the third “end of the Iraq war” in just 15 years, are trying to spin it as a new phase in the continuing war.
It makes sense for them to present it this way, US operations aren’t changing substantially. The troops are staying, which is unsurprising as the Pentagon was insisting from the start of this most recent buildup that the deployment was to be more or less permanent.
So US officials want the public to view this more as the next phase of Iraq. Pentagon officials are upbeat that they are going into the next phase, since ISIS did get mostly defeated, albeit at the cost of badly damaging or outright destroying multiple Sunni cities. As a practical matter, there isn’t much reason for confidence. Everything that derailed the previous US strategies in Iraq will still be a problem, only more so.
As with the brief “shock and awe” period giving way to a much less specific open-ended campaign, the defeat of ISIS will give way to a new round of mission creep, as officials come up with new goals for the war to justify its continuation. Another stability-centric set of missions for a Pentagon that’s been struggling mightily with that wherever they intervene.
A top priority is going to be re-training and building up the Iraqi military, of course. The US has already given Iraq an entire military’s worth of gear before, much of which was looted and lost in the ISIS fighting. High casualties among the best-trained fighters mean in many ways the US is starting from square one again, especially on gear, and Iraq’s economic woes mean they’re in an even worse position to pay for anything the US wants them to have.
Beyond that, Pentagon officials have made a stated goal of ensuring that ISIS doesn’t reemerge, and that some other faction doesn’t emerge to replace them. This is the most open-ended goal, obviously, as it could conceivably take forever. It’s also the least realistic goal, as a cursory look at the last 15 years shows.
The 2003 US invasion turned Iraq’s Sunni Arabs into a large but virtually powerless minority. This made them fertile recruiting ground for al-Qaeda in Iraq, and later for its successor movement, ISIS. Violent crackdowns by the Shi’ite-dominated government have come and gone, and have often bolstered recruitment for insurgencies.
This is a problem that the US couldn’t solve in the post-2003 invasion. Fighting with al-Qaeda and other insurgents continued until the US failed to get a Status of Force Agreement (SOFA) and withdrew. Ironically, the withdrawal briefly meant a reduction in al-Qaeda’s influence, though a new round of crackdowns by Iraq’s government meant this was short-lived.
In 2018, there is no reason to expect better, and a lot of reasons to expect worse. The war in Afghanistan shows the US hasn’t gotten any better at handling insurgencies. The impulse is still to escalate, which didn’t work before, and further exacerbates the unrest.
Iraq’s Sunni Arabs are every bit as disenfranchised as they were a decade ago, with the added problem that most of their cities are now in ruins, and a lot of them are still displaced. This reconstruction is both something Iraq can’t afford, and which is probably a relatively low priority for them, as many Shi’ite officials view the Sunnis as ISIS collaborators.
That’s beyond a problem with the US strategy in Iraq, it’s also the reason Iraq’s status quo is so unstable. Still, it leaves the US with an unsolvable problem, and Pentagon policy is that they are committed to rolling this boulder uphill. But is it a forever war?
Not necessarily, and ironically this phase of war may end the same way the first post-Saddam phase did, lack of cooperation from the Iraqi government. Iraq’s parliament, noting repeated celebrations of the defeat of ISIS, passed a bill formally asking Prime Minister Abadi to offer specifics on how much longer foreign troops are going to be in Iraq.
While Prime Minister Abadi seems willing to tolerate the US presence being open-ended, parliament is unlikely to accept “forever” as a valid answer to how long. That sets the stage for another confrontation between the US and Iraqi governments over another SOFA at some point in the future. As in the past, with ISIS largely defeated and an open-ended US presence no guarantee that another insurgency won’t crop up in the future, Iraq has little reason to accept a permanent SOFA. Mistrust of foreign meddling because of pretty much everything that’s happened in the last 15 years, moreover, gives them ample reason to deny such SOFA, and insist on another one with a clear timetable.
That might mean that for the second time this decade, Iraq will have extricated the United States military from the quagmire that is being stuck in Iraq. We Americans might start being a bit grateful of this happens, because Lord knows the Pentagon would never figure out to just leave on their own without being shown the door.