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Iraq, the Failed State: How a Decade of State Building Came to Nothing

This summer, Iraq made an unwelcome reappearance at the front pages of newspapers around the world, with stories regarding sectarian strife, a leadership crisis in Baghdad and the rise of the Islamic State in the north. It had only been two-and-a-half years since US President Barack Obama ended American operations in that country, claiming that his forces had made an “extraordinary achievement”. Back then, after nearly nine years of foreign occupation and civil war, Iraq finally appeared to be relatively stable. Yet today’s problems shows how fragile Iraq’s peace really was, and how quickly Iraq could fall to pieces once again. Indeed, it appears the US’ counterinsurgency strategy, which aimed to pacify Iraq, has been a failure that could have been anticipated by examining the culmination of events which transpired during American occupation.  

Domestic hostilities in Iraq began shortly after the Anglo-American invasion in 2003. The Iraqi’s army surrender to “coalition of the willing’s” troops led to a power vacuum, which Iraqi citizens exploited by looting government offices. Paul Bremer, appointed by then-US President George W. Bush as the man in charge to lead Iraq into a democratic and independent state, aggravated this problem by dissolving what was left of the Iraqi army in a bid to neutralize remaining pro-Saddam Hussein forces. Thirteen months later, Bremer handed power back to Iraq with the creation of an interim government. This was succeeded by a transitional government in 2005 before the installation of the first ever democratically elected government in 2006, which was to be led by Shiite Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki. This marked an important shift of power in Iraqi politics, with the majority Shiite population having previously been ruled by Saddam Hussein’s Sunni-dominated government.

Meanwhile, a strong Islamic extremist insurgency took hold in much of the country- which required countering with a strong military strategy. US General Ricardo Sanchez successfully had used a ‘shock and awe’ approach to defeat Iraqi forces during the US’ initial invasion. But during his Senate confirmation hearing, his successor General George W. Casey was famously accused by Senator John McCain of not even having a strategy to work with.

Violence kept increasing under Casey’s watch, prompting the Bush administration to make two changes in early 2007. First, Casey was replaced by General David Petraeus, who adopted a counterinsurgency strategy commonly referred to as COIN. This strategy viewed the rebellion as a fundamental battle for the support of the population.  The solution, therefore, was to fight a battle for the “hearts and minds” of the population. US forces would appease citizens by building critical infrastructure such as schools and bridges, as well as adjudicating local disputes while simultaneously attacking the insurgents. To this end, the package came along with over $1 billion to spend on social and economic development. The second change was a significant increase of troop levels, called the “surge”. Over 20,000 extra troops were sent to Iraq in order to secure the population and eliminate the enemy. Battle deaths increased while US forces took control over the rebel-stronghold Fallujah, while expenses continued to skyrocket. It is reported that at the height of the war, the conflict cost the US taxpayer over $1 billion per day.

The surge was effective in ousting Islamic extremists, and allowed President Bush to start winding down the war. After suffering 4,500 US military deaths and a staggering 100,000 Iraqi civilian deaths estimated, Bush’s successor Barack Obama finally returned almost all US troops from Iraqi soil, even if he perhaps did not quite realize how shaky a house of cards he had left behind. Political violence quickly ensued in the form of car bombings, kidnappings and assassinations, continued between northern Sunni forces and their southern Shiite counterparts. Embarrassment reached US policy makers earlier this year when Fallujah fell back into Islamist hands. The situation further worsened when Islamic State militants entered Iraqi territory from neighbouring Syria, prompting the Iraqi army to flee. Commentators say this may be the result of Prime Minister Al-Maliki’s style of military appointments. Fearful of a military coup d’état now that US forces were gone, he allegedly appointed army commanders on sectarian grounds to ensure loyalty, rather than on the basis of merit. This may have prevented a coup, but also meant that the army’s fighting morale was low, leading to massive defections when they were finally confronted by the Islamic State.

President Obama now faces a tough dilemma. He can either hope his current strategy of air strikes and arming the Kurds will suffice to oust the Islamic State, or he can redeploy a significant number of troops to Iraq. Should he choose the latter, he would be well-advised first to investigate exactly why the past counterinsurgency strategy failed to deliver. Of course, errors were made and it may be possible to attribute some blame. But most experts simply do not know how to pacify Iraq. It is therefore time to go back to the drawing board and come up with new ideas on how to approach the problem. Political scientists and military strategists have their work cut out for them.

– Quint Hoekstra

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