Iran has just defeated the United States in Iraq.
The American withdrawal, which comes after the administration’s failure to secure a new agreement that would have allowed troops to remain in Iraq, won’t be good for ordinary Iraqis or for the region. But it will unquestionably benefit Iran.
President Obama’s February 2009 speech at Camp Lejeune accurately defined the U.S. goal for Iraq as “an Iraq that is sovereign, stable and self-reliant.” He then outlined how the U.S. would achieve that goal by working “to promote an Iraqi government that is just, representative and accountable, and that provides neither support nor safe haven to terrorists.”
Despite recent administration claims to the contrary, Iraq today meets none of those conditions. Its sovereignty is hollow because of the continued activities of Iranian-backed militias in its territory. Its stability is fragile, since the fundamental disputes among ethnic and sectarian groups remain unresolved. And it is not in any way self-reliant. The Iraqi military cannot protect its borders, its airspace or its territorial waters without foreign assistance.
Although Obama has clearly failed to achieve the goals for Iraq that he set five weeks after taking office, Iran, in contrast, is well on its way to achieving its strategic objectives. Since 2004, Tehran has sought to drive all American forces out of the country, to promote a weak, Shiite-led government in Baghdad, to develop Hezbollah-like political-militia organizations in Iraq through which to exert influence and intimidate pro-Western Iraqi leaders, and to insinuate its theocratic ideology into Iraq’s Shiite clerical establishment. It has largely succeeded in achieving each of those goals.
Preventing the extension of a Status of Forces Agreement allowing American military forces to remain in Iraq has been the primary goal of Iranian activities in Iraq since 2008. That year, the then-commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, Gen. Ray Odierno, told the Washington Post that he had seen intelligence reports suggesting that Tehran and its agents bribed Iraqi leaders to derail a new agreement. Iranian-backed militants also attempted to conduct an intimidation campaign to deter Iraqi officials from signing the extension. But back then, the Iraqi security forces and American troops had just defeated the Shiite militias in major battles in Sadr City and Basra and driven their commanders back into hiding in Iran. Their attempts to drive the U.S. out at the end of 2008 failed.
This year, however, Shiite militants were able to execute a campaign of targeted assassinations. They also increased rocket and IED attacks on U.S. and Iraqi security forces using technologies that they had tried unsuccessfully to field in 2008 but have since perfected. Militias that had been badly damaged during a surge by U.S. forces were able to reconstitute during the protracted government-formation process, because Iraqi politicians were unwilling to support attacks on groups affiliated with Muqtada Sadr, whose backing was needed for Prime Minister Nouri Maliki’s continued premiership.
Opponents of the U.S. presence in Iraq have long argued that the withdrawal of American forces would reduce anti-American sentiment and violence, denying the militias their excuse for continued operations. Sadr does not see it that way.
Two days after the president’s announcement, Sadr declared that even an expanded U.S. diplomatic presence in Baghdad would be a continued occupation. Speaking of American diplomats in Iraq, he said, “They are all occupiers, and resisting them after the end of the agreement is an obligation.” This declaration was all the more remarkable in that he had announced Thursday, before Obama’s speech, that a residual American presence could be accepted after a “complete withdrawal,” payment of “compensation” and the signing of a new agreement. Far from assuaging Sadr’s anti-Americanism, the announcement of U.S. retreat has apparently fueled it and driven him (or his Iranian backers) to seek an even greater success through continued attacks on the U.S. Embassy and its personnel.
Many Americans felt a sense of relief when the president announced that “America’s war in Iraq is over.” That relief must be tempered, however, by the recognition that Tehran has achieved its goals in Iraq while the U.S. has not. Henceforth, Iranian proxy militias are likely to expand their training bases in southern Iraq and use them as staging areas for operations throughout the Persian Gulf.
An Iraq dependent on Iran for survival could undercut any sanctions that the international community places on Iran to prevent its acquisition of nuclear weapons. And the unresolved ethnic and sectarian disputes in Iraq are likely to devolve into armed conflict once again. In a year that also saw the “Arab Spring,” it will ultimately be Iran that emerges ascendant in Iraq and throughout the Middle East. America’s defeat is nothing to be relieved about.
Frederick W. Kagan is a resident scholar and director of the Critical Threats Project at the American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research. Kimberly Kagan is president of the Institute for the Study of War.