How America Can Shore Up Asian Order
A Strategy for Restoring Balance and Legitimacy
For Americans who came of age near the turn of the current century, the war in Iraq was a generation-defining experience. When the United States invaded the country in 2003, toppling the government of Saddam Hussein in a matter of weeks, many saw the war as a necessary or even noble endeavor to stop the spread of weapons of mass destruction, which Saddam was allegedly developing—and bring democracy to parts of the world that had long suffered under the weight of tyranny.
By the time U.S. forces withdrew from Iraq in 2011, such illusions had been shattered. The conflict had cost the United States $731 billion, claimed the lives of at least 110,000 Iraqis and nearly 5,000 U.S. troops, and done lasting damage to Washington’s international reputation. The invasion had sparked a virulent insurgency that was only barely quelled by 2011, and which resurfaced following the U.S. withdrawal, when a vicious jihadist group calling itself the Islamic State (or ISIS) seized an area the size of Iceland in western Iraq and eastern Syria. Most Americans who have been to Iraq remember car bombs and streets lined with ten-foot-tall concrete blast walls. For those who have never been, Iraq is less a place than a symbol of imperial hubris—a tragic mistake that they would prefer to forget.
Yet Iraq today is a different country. Few Americans understand the remarkable success of Operation Inherent Resolve, the U.S. campaign to defeat ISIS. Some 7,000 U.S. troops (and 5,000 more from 25 countries in the anti-ISIS coalition) provided support to Iraq’s army and local partners in Syria, who fought to free their towns, cities, and provinces from ISIS’ brutal grip. By the time these U.S.-backed forces had ejected ISIS from its final territorial stronghold, in Syria, in March of this year, the campaign had liberated 7.7 million people at the relatively modest cost of $31.2 billion. Today, Iraqi schools are open, Baghdad’s nightlife is vibrant, and security checkpoints have been removed. Last May, the country held largely free and fair nationwide parliamentary elections. Its population is young and forward-looking, and its government is back on its feet.
The United States has an opportunity to convert this momentum into a long-term geopolitical gain. Unfortunately, many Americans are so weary of their country’s involvement in Iraq that they fail to recognize the opportunity to salvage a positive outcome there that is far better than what anyone hoped to achieve even a few years ago. Many U.S. officials, meanwhile, are more focused on treating Iraq as an arena for combating Iran. They argue that, in the aftermath of ISIS’ defeat, Iraq has become an unreliable ally and even a proxy of Tehran. Worse, they appear willing to sacrifice the U.S. relationship with Baghdad—and put at risk the relative success that Iraq has become—in service of their campaign of “maximum pressure” against Iran.
This approach would be a mistake. Cutting off U.S. support right when Baghdad has managed to achieve a modicum of stability would risk the hard-won gains of recent years, especially during Operation Inherent Resolve. And a confrontational U.S. policy toward Iraq would fan the dying embers of sectarianism at precisely the moment when the country is emerging as a stable, nonsectarian democracy. Worse, it would strengthen Iran’s hand in Iraq and provide ISIS with the chance it needs to rebuild. The only way the United States can achieve its goals—preventing ISIS’ return and ending Iran’s destabilizing activities in Iraq—is by working through and with Baghdad.
Iraq’s future looks brighter today than it has at any point in the past decade. Its progress can be largely attributed to two factors: the country’s recent evolution away from Shiite-Sunni sectarianism and the coalition’s victory over ISIS.
Iraq’s 2018 parliamentary elections marked a maturation of Iraq’s democracy. These were the first elections in which sectarianism took a back seat to issues of good governance and the daily concerns of Iraqis. A range of parties formed cross-sectarian or nonsectarian coalitions to compete for votes; none of them emerged dominant. Instead, the election produced a number of parliamentary blocs that must bargain with one another to get anything done. The current government relies on consensus and is led by two politicians with a history of working with the United States: Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi and President Barham Salih. When the government took office in October 2018, it marked Iraq’s fourth successive peaceful transfer of power.
The 2018 elections were a demonstration of Iraqis’ priorities. The alliance that won the most votes, the Sairoon (Marching Toward Reform) coalition, was led by followers of the populist Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, the erstwhile leader of a militia that fought U.S. troops from 2004 to 2008. Although Sadr studied and once sought refuge in Iran, he is also a vocal nationalist who wants to ensure Iraq’s independence from both Washington and Tehran. Many Iraqis consider today’s creeping Iranian influence to be an affront to their country’s sovereignty, and during the campaign, Sadr persuasively positioned his bloc as the independent alternative to the one led by former Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi (which was seen as too pro-American) and the one led by Hadi al-Ameri (which was seen as too close to Iran).
Even more important than Sadr’s emphasis on independence was his decision to champion bread-and-butter economic and governance issues. Sadr has long enjoyed support among poor Shiites thanks to his years spent demanding improved public services and a crackdown on Iraq’s egregious corruption. Although many Iraqis benefit from entrenched party patronage—some 60 percent of employed Iraqis are on the public payroll—they are fed up with politicians siphoning millions of dollars from the public coffers. Recognizing this frustration, Sadr called for the removal of corrupt officials and an upgrading of public services, especially electricity. After the election, he insisted on the appointment of technically competent cabinet ministers instead of politicians as a condition of his support for the government, which has largely occurred.
The demand for improved governance has moved to the fore now that Iraq has finally emerged from its vicious, five-year battle against ISIS. In 2014, the terrorist group swept across northern and western Iraq, capturing roughly one-third of the country’s territory, including Mosul, its second-largest city. Iraq’s military and police forces, corroded by years of political interference and corruption, all but disintegrated in the face of ISIS’ offensive. Some Sunnis, alienated by years of sectarian governance under the Shiite prime minister Nouri al-Maliki, welcomed ISIS forces as liberators. By the summer of 2014, many feared that the group would take Baghdad.
Iraq’s future looks brighter today than it has at any point in the past decade.
Alarmed by ISIS’ advance, Iran was the first country to come to Baghdad’s aid—by June, it had begun sending aid, equipment, and advisers from the Quds Force, a unit of its Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. Then, in September 2014, Maliki stepped down in favor of Abadi, a pro-U.S. moderate who worked to soothe Sunni fears of persecution. That same month, the United States formed a global coalition to defeat ISIS. Washington and its coalition partners provided Iraq with military assistance in the form of training, equipment, battlefield advisers, and air power. But it was the Iraqis who did the fighting.
The fact that the Iraqis provided most of the troops to defeat ISIS in Iraq was essential to restoring the country’s morale. The government did receive outside help—Iran backed Iraqi Shiite militias, and Qasem Soleimani, the leader of the Quds Force, became a ubiquitous presence in Iraq during the war. Yet the major military gains in the anti-ISIS campaign were made, with coalition assistance, by the Iraqi army and especially the Iraqi Counter Terrorism Service, an elite, nonsectarian force funded, trained, and supported by the United States since 2003.
Iraq has defeated ISIS on the battlefield, but it has not yet won the peace. The country now faces the massive task of reconstruction. The Iraqi government, assisted by the UN Development Program and the U.S.-led coalition, has returned basic services to places such as eastern Mosul, which was devastated by heavy fighting in 2016 and 2017. But western Mosul and other areas still resemble the bombed-out cities of Europe at the end of World War II.
At an international donor conference last year, Iraq secured some $30 billion in aid, loan, and credit pledges. Yet the government has estimated that recovery and reconstruction could cost as much as $88 billion. The task will take a decade or more, provided the Iraqi government and international donors remain committed to rebuilding Sunni areas. Without consistent progress in this effort, hope will wane and discontent will grow. Already, there are worrying signs that the momentum for ensuring Iraq’s stabilization and security has begun to stall. If it does, it could augur a return to a full-blown insurgency.
In the year and a half since December 2017, when Abadi declared Iraq’s liberation from ISIS, three million internally displaced people have returned to their homes in Iraq. But 1.6 million Iraqis, most of them Sunnis, are still displaced. The International Organization for Migration estimates that most of the remaining displaced people have now been so for over three years—a tipping point that the organization and other refugee experts say threatens permanent displacement. Many of these people are shunned by their fellow Iraqis, who suspect them of having supported ISIS.
The risk is that the resulting tensions could reignite sectarian conflict, drawing disaffected Sunnis—especially permanently displaced ones—back into the arms of ISIS. The group has already begun to reawaken, as former fighters drift back to their homes, forming sleeper cells in cities or creating rural safe havens in the Iraqi and Syrian deserts. Although ISIS attacks have declined since the destruction of the territorial caliphate, the group claims to be carrying out several dozen attacks and inflicting some 300 casualties every week, most of them in Iraq and Syria, a tally that roughly parallels those of outside observers.
Despite the progress it has made in recent years, Iraq is in a delicate position. The United States should be doing what it can to not only ensure the lasting defeat of ISIS but also assist Baghdad with the difficult work of reconstruction. Since the election of Donald Trump in 2016, however, U.S. policy toward Iraq has become increasingly confrontational, as the administration has made Iraq a central battleground in its fights with Iran.
Trump has presented Iraq with two demands that will be difficult for the country to meet. In November 2018, as part of its sanctions policy, Washington ordered Iraq to cease importing electricity and natural gas (which is used to make electricity) from Iran. In principle, Baghdad agrees with the goal of achieving energy independence. But in practice, Iraq currently receives about 40 percent of its electricity supply from Iran. As Luay al-Khatteeb, Iraq’s electricity minister, explained to U.S. officials in December, finding alternate energy sources will require rebuilding Iraq’s decrepit power grid and addressing the damage done by decades of war, mismanagement, and corruption—a project that he estimates will take at least two years. The United States has issued a series of 90-day waivers, most recently in June, to give Iraq time to comply. But if the administration stops granting waivers and Iranian imports are halted, the resulting electricity blackouts will certainly cause Basra and other Iraqi cities to erupt in violent protests, as they did last summer in response to power shortages.
The United States has also demanded that Iraq disband several Shiite militias with close ties to Iran. These militias are not a new problem: in 2009, Washington designated the most powerful Iranian-created militia, Kataib Hezbollah, as a terrorist organization for its attacks on U.S. soldiers in Iraq; the group and its leader, Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, were also subject to U.S. sanctions targeting insurgents and militias. But over the past five years, the issue has become far more complex. In June 2014, a wave of mostly Shiite volunteers responded to a call from Iraq’s leading Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, to help defend the country against ISIS. Hundreds of small militia groups formed, and in 2016, these groups were formally recognized under Iraqi law as the Popular Mobilization Forces, or PMF. The Iraqi government office set up to oversee the PMF, the Popular Mobilization Committee, became a conduit for Iranian influence, with Muhandis serving as the committee’s deputy chair.
Washington has called on Baghdad to disband both the PMF and militia groups such as Kataib Hezbollah, which it often treats as essentially indistinguishable. The Iraqi government agrees that the militias should be broken up but understands that, given Iran’s clout, doing so will take some time and deft maneuvering. One aspect of that maneuvering will be to distinguish Iranian-backed militias from groups of Shiite volunteers who were largely motivated by patriotism. Many PMF fighters have already gone home, but over 100,000 remain on the government’s payroll. Some groups have become entrenched and are allegedly involved in extortion and other illegal activities.
The Iraqi constitution bans political militias—a provision that has wide popular support. In addition, Abdul-Mahdi issued a decree in July 2019 that called on all entities bearing arms to be incorporated into the armed forces. As the PMF is already legally part of Iraq’s armed forces, this decree could serve as a vehicle for dissolving the Iranian-backed militias—something Abadi had sought to do with a previous order. Carrying out this decree, however, will require building a powerful coalition in parliament, likely with the Sadrists in the lead.
The PMF is a separate issue. It is unlikely to be disbanded outright. Thanks to the PMF’s achievements in the anti-ISIS campaign, it is politically popular, especially among Shiites. The problem is that the PMF’s official role is redundant, overlapping with that of the Ministry of the Interior’s police force, which already struggles to attract enough qualified recruits. Since PMF fighters receive the same pay and benefits as police officers, they have little incentive to join the federal police. This issue can be best addressed over time, as part of an effort to professionalize the entire armed forces of Iraq.
Instead of engaging with their Iraqi colleagues to find workable solutions, however, officials in the Trump administration seem intent on alienating them. Senior U.S. policymakers apparently believe that Iraqis are hostile to the United States, ungrateful for its help, and beholden to Iran. When I spoke to one U.S. diplomat recently, he noted that almost one-third of Iraq’s current parliamentarians had been detained by U.S. forces at some point before 2011. The implication was that they could not be trusted. But since 2003, the United States has often worked with former combatants in Iraq and encouraged their reintegration into mainstream politics. Abadi’s interior minister, Qasim al-Araji, was a former U.S. detainee, yet he worked closely with the U.S. coalition to coordinate the counter-ISIS campaign. Washington has cooperated with Ameri, who is the leader of the pro-Iranian Badr Organization, for years.
The administration’s statements and actions have affronted Iraqis by appearing to ignore their sovereignty, which is still a sore subject for a country the United States invaded. In February, Trump asserted in a Face the Nation interview that he planned on keeping U.S. troops in Iraq to “watch” Iran. This touched a nerve—the Iraqi government welcomes the presence of U.S. troops for the express purposes of defeating ISIS and helping improve its armed forces, but its policy is to maintain good relations with both Washington and Tehran. Trump’s statement drew rebukes from Iraq’s prime minister, its president, and Sistani. Then, on May 7, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo made a surprise visit to Baghdad, where he met with Iraqi leaders and publicly demanded assurances that they would protect Americans against any hostile activity, implicitly from Iran. A few days later, the State Department ordered all nonessential personnel to leave the U.S. embassy in Baghdad after a mortar fell nearby. Since then, two locations where U.S. personnel are stationed have been targeted by rockets, likely fired by Iranian-backed militias.
The mortar and rocket attacks were reminders of the bad old days of the U.S. occupation, when rockets landed near the embassy with some regularity, as well as troubling signs that U.S. troops could be targeted as Washington increases its pressure on Tehran. Yet the United States should be working with the Iraqi government, which desperately wants to avoid a confrontation with Iran, rather than treating it with disdain. The Trump administration’s moves were widely seen as overreactions by U.S. and coalition officials in Iraq, who for the past four years have been quietly working to mitigate the threat posed by Iranian-backed militias and who are confident in their ability to protect U.S. troops. For most Iraqis—and for many coalition officials, too—Pompeo’s demand came across less as a genuine response to a security threat and more as an unnecessary attempt to humiliate Baghdad.
Washington is putting the Iraqi government in a difficult position. It will appear weak to Iraqis if it does not resist American browbeating. And the more confrontational Washington’s stance becomes, the more that pro-U.S. Iraqi politicians will be discredited in the eyes of their fellow citizens. The Trump administration’s approach thus risks driving Iraq into the arms of Iran—the opposite of its stated goal. Worse, an Iraqi government forced to lean on Tehran would once again alienate Sunnis, paving the way for a return of sectarianism and even a resurgence of ISIS.
With Iraq at a critical point in its transition to a stable and secure democracy, U.S. actions can either help ensure this transition’s success or fundamentally jeopardize its prospects. As this opportunity may be short lived, Washington should act quickly to seize it. It should focus its security assistance and diplomatic efforts on coordinating with the Iraqi government to make certain that there is a successful conclusion to the counter-ISIS campaign—one that will not only eliminate the last remnants of the group but also address the grievances that drove its success in the first place. At the same time, the United States should work behind the scenes with Baghdad to address Iran’s destabilizing activities in Iraq. Finally, the United States should help integrate Iraq into a set of long-term bilateral, multilateral, and regional partnerships.
Continued security assistance to Iraq will be necessary to ensure that ISIS’ nascent efforts to make a comeback do not succeed. The Iraqi security forces are on the mend, but further professionalization of the army and the police force is needed to prevent these forces from unraveling again. A combination of U.S. aid and diplomacy can guarantee that Iraq’s war-damaged areas are rebuilt and that its 1.7 million displaced citizens find homes while resisting ISIS’ blandishments. Washington should also consider pressing Baghdad to revise or eliminate its de-Baathification law, which still subjects Sunnis to unfair treatment.
To ensure the lasting defeat of ISIS, the United States will also need to more actively grapple with the difficult problem of ISIS foreign fighters detained in Syria. The U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces are currently holding over 2,000 foreign fighters, but as the SDF is a nongovernmental entity, this is not a permanent solution. The U.S. government should push for one of two solutions: an international tribunal to try these detainees or a coordinated international effort to have them transferred to and tried, or at least held, in their countries of origin.
Despite the progress it has made in recent years, Iraq is in a delicate position.
The United States must also adopt an approach to reducing Iran’s negative influence in Iraq that will help stabilize the region, rather than corner the Iraqi government and force it to choose between Washington and Tehran. Iraqi nationalism is the ultimate hedge against Iran’s overweening ambitions; no Iraqi wishes for his or her country to become a pawn of Iran. Yet the United States must make sure that the sovereignty card is played against Tehran and not against Washington. Issuing public demands to Baghdad is counterproductive—pressure must be exerted behind closed doors, and savvy coalitions must be built to empower Iraqis to limit Iranian encroachment. That said, Iran is and will remain one of Iraq’s major trading partners, its primary source of tourism revenue, and a much larger and more powerful country forever on its borders. Only a web of countervailing influence from the United States, Europe, and the Arab world will secure Iraqi sovereignty.
The United States has all the tools to help Iraq succeed, and it is manifestly in Washington’s interest to do so. A strong, independent, and democratic Iraq will be a boon to U.S. interests in the Middle East. As the largest Shiite-majority Arab country, Iraq can serve as a bridge between the region’s Shiites and Sunnis, Arabs and Persians. As a neighbor and former rival of Iran, Iraq can also act as a brake on Tehran’s regional ambitions—provided that it is in a position to look after its own security needs.
A more consolidated Iraqi democracy will also make fewer demands on the United States. Iraq has the fifth-largest oil reserves in the world, which should provide it with the resources to care for its own people. The country is also, finally, beginning to restore diplomatic and commercial ties with the Gulf states, which had withered after Saddam’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990. Saudi Arabia has reopened its embassy in Baghdad, resumed commercial airline service to Iraq, provided the country with reconstruction aid, and welcomed Abdul-Mahdi and Sadr to Riyadh. In April, Saudi Arabia pledged $1 billion in investment to Iraq, and it has offered to sell Baghdad electricity at a discount to help wean the country off Iranian energy.
The basic architecture for a mutually beneficial U.S.-Iraqi relationship already exists. After the 2007 U.S. troop surge, U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker worked with Salih, who was then deputy prime minister, and Salih’s fellow Kurd, Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari, to develop the Strategic Framework Agreement, which called on Washington and Baghdad to deepen their relationship from a security partnership to one spanning cultural, economic, educational, and scientific ties. Thus far, the United States has focused on winning contracts for U.S. businesses and gaining more visas as implicit preconditions for other forms of engagement. This is a mistake. Instead, the United States should see the broad implementation of the agreement as a chance to use U.S. soft power—in the form of investment, trade, tourism, and educational and scientific exchanges—to draw Washington and Baghdad closer together.
The U.S. invasion and subsequent occupation of Iraq have shown the dangers of starting a major war in the absence of some overwhelming strategic objective, such as the liberation of Europe in World War II. Yet the most recent chapter of the United States’ engagement in Iraq holds a much different lesson. The success of Operation Inherent Resolve, with its focus on assisting Iraqis as they took the lead in the fight for their own land, points the way toward a new paradigm for military operations: a middle ground between costly wars and nonintervention, one that relies more on cooperation, diplomacy, and security assistance than on unilateral military action.
After more than a decade of civil war, Iraq has a chance to become a success story all the same: a stable emerging democracy in a region where both stability and democracy are hard to find. Some Americans view Iraq as an unmitigated failure and would prefer to cut U.S. losses there. But the real failure would be to abandon Iraq just at the moment when a genuine victory is at hand.