In the night of August 18, 2010, the last American combat unit that was still stationed in Iraq crossed the border of Kuwait. Although former president Obama had announced an “accomplished mission”, no particular ceremony was held to celebrate the success of the mission when the American troops finally left the country of Iraq.
It is true that the overall political assessment of this military mission, which is the most important mission the Americans asserted since the war in Vietnam, remains rather undefined. We are still far from attaining a “better peace”, the goal to every war according to Liddell Hart.
A country facing division
One of the main issues Iraq is dealing with is the problematic democratic transfer of power to the Iraqi government. Not only does this new Iraqi government maintain ties with Iran, in the near future it will also encounter difficulties to keep the country together as division seems more probable every day. Although Nouri Al-Maliki, who was elected in 2008, seems to be a statesman, the political body of the country has not succeeded in creating an actual state since the elections of 2005. Furthermore, since the tensions that arose in 2006 and 2007 partisan and sectarian egotisms prevail all over again.
Currently, at the very end of the legislature, fundamental laws regarding the development of the country, the oil industry and the status of political parties and regional governance are still on hold; as well as the referendum on the future of the city of Kirkuk. Moreover, the country of Iraq is rated 176th out of 180 countries regarding its political integrity and the rivalry between political parties and ministers is very similar to a struggle between predators. Due to the unprogressive political system of Bagdad, a gap has occurred between the government and the rest of the Iraqi society and the local administrations.
A symptom of this problem is the degradation of the security situation since the departure of the American troops in 2009. From August to December 2009, terrorist attacks increasingly occurred in the city of Bagdad. Within four months, at least 400 people got killed, which led to the postponement of the legislative elections from January to March 2010. And still, Bagdad stays one of the world’s most dangerous cities, and throughout the country of Iraq, 15 to 20 people get killed daily. Djihadist movements are still present, and their Sunnite adherence shows the disappointment regarding the political popularity of the Sunnites and their fear for marginalisation.
The cause but also the consequence of this security situation is the fragmentation of the security forces, which is increasingly visible in the allegiance to the government and has therefore become a political issue. Maliki has the upper hand in the operational command of Bagdad and the presidential brigade, whereas the 17th division command in the south of the capital together with the 6th division in the airport and the two Kurdish divisions (the 15th and the 16th command in the mountains) assure the second security circle. Another event, which shows the government’s increasing concern about its own security forces, is the arrest and quick release of fifty government officials of the ministry of interior mid-December 2008 under the accusation of “Attempt to organize a coup against the government”. It is true, that the Ministry of interior, comprises all the so-called parallel forces of the other ministries (forces for oil protection, electricity protection etc.), and has therefore become the first employer of the country with a force of over a half a million men.
While facing this governmental paralysis, several armed forces are on standby. The Sahwa movement, of which the Maliki government has fired the militias, still exists and retains the option to rise again through an armed confrontation. The same goes for the Army of Mahdi, which is clearly waiting for the Americans to leave. The green line that separates Kurdistan from Arab part of Iraq is over armed, especially in the oil-rich region of Kirkuk. After the period of ethnic cleansing by Saddam Hussein, the Kurds moved back to this region, impatiently waiting for the referendum provided for by the constitution, which would enable them to annex Kirkuk to the autonomous zone. Such a decision would immediately marginalize the Sunnites, whose only source of oil revenue would disappear. It would also cause concern in Turkey, who would be the least to be happy to see a powerful and prosperous Kurdistan emerge at its borders.
The Americans are in a very peculiar position regarding this situation. They are anxious to maintain a Sunnite counterforce to a government that has close ties with Teheran, but they also want to spare Turkey. They believe that a Kurdish annex of Kirkuk would be too dangerous, what would mean that they alienate their true ally in the region. Therefore, they support the enactment of a law for the equal distribution of hydrocarbons. All local political actors however, have declined this law. Kirkuk is of such strategic significance to both the Kurds and the Arab Sunnites, that the situation in this area has been put on ice/frozen before possibly becoming the epicentre of a civil war.
The moment of truth is approaching. While Iraq is still on the front page of every American journal, on the site the Americans troops fail to maintain their unity. The cornerstone of Iraq’s security has disappeared as well as the major tool of the American policy in the region. However, the capacity to act in response to local and regional events shouldn’t be given up. Therefore the armed forces have committed themselves to a new metamorphosis.
The local allied armies.
In Iraq, the Americans maintain a strong relationship with the two major local armies: the autonomous Kurdish army (counting almost 200.000 Peshmergas), and the Iraqi national army, which is dependant of the Americans.
The Iraqi army is to a large extent equipped with American materials, which generates immense revenues (1,6 billions dollars for the 140 chars M1) and which makes it logistically easier for the American to retreat ; as they can leave a great part of their material to the Iraqis. The strengthening of the Iraqi army has become a necessity because of the retreat of the American brigades, which delivered a great part of the means for transport, logistics and support to the Iraqi. Currently, the Iraqi army is nothing more than a collection of infantry battalions. Its main points of weakness are its logistics and its maintenance; therefore it requires permanent support of the Americans. Moreover, the Iraqi army almost entirely lacks of air force, which means that every action taken against a regular army will equally necessitate American aerial support.
The ongoing transformation is about human. The Iraqi national army, which is counting 220.000 men, is dependant of 50.000 American soldiers who will only to stay until the end of 2011. This time span and volume of force corresponds with the plans the Americans made in 2003, after the fall of Saddam Hussein. The volume of the American forces, councillors, and especially the Special Forces that will stay after the end of 2011 has not been determined yet. The number of 10.000 men has often been raised, keeping in mind that it is also possible to use civil contractors. At the Pentagon, this kind of civil employees is already more numerous than the number serviceman and it deployment of these contractors would reduce the military visibility in the region.
We still need to determine who will be commanding this American-Iraqi army. It’s appointed chief of staff himself, general Zebari has openly declared his preference for a long-term American presence in Iraq (at least until 2020). This will secure the respect among the Iraqi population towards the army in general and the way in which it provides security. This growing popularity however, makes the army more threatening in regard to the weak government. Regarding the fact that modern Iraq went through seven “coups d’état”, we cannot exclude the possibility that the Americans will use this asset in times of chaos like we saw in 2006, or alignment with Iran. Furthermore, the construction of army bases in the cities of Bassorah, Mossoul, Kirkuk and Erbil, shows the will to rapidly reimplant terrestrial combat units.
The regional device
‘Central Command’, the American military device in the region, remains strong and is even growing. First of all it supports a number of military bases along the Arabic Gulf, from camp Arifjan in Kuwait (which hosts more than 15.000 men), the smaller air bases of Msirah and Thumrait in the Sultanate of Oman to the large bases in Bahrain (Manama, for the 5th fleet) and Qatar (Airforce and logistics). The costs to enlarge the bases in Bahrain and Qatar are already exceeding 1,5 billion dollars. The United States’ 5th fleet maintains at least one naval air force group as well and an amphibious one. In the second sphere of this device, the Americans profit from the bases of Diego Suarez, throughout the Indian Ocean, in Djibouti and Incirlik and in Turkey. Although the terrestrial forces of the Americans may have become limited, the aerial strike capacity remains considerable.
The second part of this device is the Saudi ally, who has been delivering equipment to the Americans since the ’60-ies. Over the next twenty years, Saudi Arabia will profit from the delivery of another 63 billion dollars worth of equipment. This is probably the reason why the United States wants to make their Saudi ally the next rampart against Iran and Iraq.
The third part of this device is the integration of two local forces into two networks. The first network’s main goal is the fight against terrorism while mainly focusing on Jordan. A Special Operations training centre has been set up in order to fight terrorism throughout the whole region. Jordan is the general training and education base for the Arab allies of the United States, for which the country receives 700 million dollars annually.
The second network is an anti-missile defence project based on the only X-band radar, which is installed in the Neguev desert in Israel. The Obama administration is lobbying for the development of another radar in one of the Gulf states. These two X-band radars, which would be connected to the anti-missiles defence systems Patriot and THAAD (delivered to the monarchies of the Gulf) and the AEGIS radars of the 5th fleet, would enable the Americans to set up a strong anti-missile defence network in order to face a possible ballistic and nuclear attack from the Iranians. This network would be integrated in the European anti-missile defence system, which is currently under construction.
At the same time the Iranian threat is being used to force indirect cooperation between the Gulf states, Israel and NATO under an American umbrella. However, on the other hand this anti-missile defence cooperation could be seen as the acceptation of the nuclearisation of Iran. Teheran could also see it as an alternative to coercive action against Iran or to the nuclearisation of Saudi Arabia as a whole.
Behind this network there is the temptation to create a new CENTO (Central Treaty Organization), which associates Iraq, the Gulf states and the Middle-East and maybe Turkey in order to be able to create it during the Middle-Eastern meeting of NATO.
The renewal of asymmetry
Prima facie, the retreat of the American terrestrial forces from Iraq doesn’t seem to affect the general military capacities of the United States in the region as a whole. We could say that these have even increased after the recovery of fifteen to twenty combat brigades from the Iraqi mud. Furthermore, we could also assume that the investments made in infrastructure in the Gulf states have also been beneficiary to the American military effectiveness in the region. However, in reality these capacities have depleted. The retreat of the American forces from Iraq has coincided with the strengthening of the troops that are deployed in Afghanistan. Moreover, the consented efforts that have been made in the wars against non-state organizations in Iraq and Afghanistan, have considerably diminished the physical and the moral capacities of the American forces in the medium term (46.000 American soldiers got killed or hurt, 1.000 billion dollars were spent). The capacity of the American troops in the Middle-East exist thus almost exclusively out of strike and counter-strike capabilities.
However, the campaign of Israel against Hezbollah in 2006 shows that these means are little adapted to possible enemies such as non-state actors that are embedded in the Middle-Eastern society. The threat of Al-Qaeda may have diminished; it still exists and is maintained in the outskirts of the Arabic world (Somalia and Yemen). The massive terrorist attacks in Iraq are the evidence of the fact that Al-Qaeda (Islamic State in Iraq) could re-emerge whenever it would like to. The lesson learned from the “war on terror” is that the main enemy of Al-Qaeda aren’t the American but, in fact, the Arabs themselves.
The second threat, which might even be more important right now, is Iran and its allied organizations such as Hezbollah, Hamas and although less important, the army of Mahdi in Iraq. Iran is developing a system similar to that of Hezbollah but on a bigger scale and endowed with a high capacity anti-aerial system. From a military point of view, this defence system as a whole can be considered as very effective but with limited offensive capabilities, especially after the setting up of a regional system of anti-missile and anti-rocket defence in Israel.
Today we stand with two military tools; on one hand there is Iran with its allies, and on the other hand the US and its allies, both cancelling each other out and incapable to defeat the other. All this indicates the set up of a new cold war in the Middle-East in the years to come, with China as a disturbing force as its interests in the region are increasing.