Tuesday, October 25, 2011

The Iraq War is not ending

Contrary to most news accounts, the Iraq War is not ending. It is presumptuous and a bit America-centric to believe that the war will end just because U.S. troops are being withdrawn. There are other warring parties who will in all likelihood continue to fight for long after the last American soldier has left the country. There are only two ways to end a war: One side can be effectively beaten or the warring factions can negotiate a peace. Neither has happened in Iraq.

The situation bears an eerie resemblance to the end of the Vietnam War. By the early 1970s, using General Creighton Abrams’ “clear and hold” strategy, U.S. and ARVN troops had pacified much of South Vietnam and broke the back of the Viet Cong insurgency. The situation allowed President Richard Nixon to negotiate “peace with honor” in the Treaty of Paris with North Vietnam. The Vietnam War officially ended on January 27, 1973 and U.S. combat troops were withdrawn in March of that year.

Unfortunately, the war did not end for the Vietnamese. Two years later, the North Vietnam launched a massive invasion of South Vietnam. Because congress, including several members who continue to serve today, cut off funding for the combat operations in Southeast Asia, the United States could not honor its treaty obligation to help defend South Vietnam or even resupply the beleaguered South Vietnamese troops. South Vietnam fell in 55 days.

Many civilians died fleeing the invading communist army. The History Learning Site estimates that as many as 1.5 million more South Vietnamese became “boat people” and fled the country by sea. As many as 200,000 boat people died before reaching safety. Of those who stayed, about 65,000 were executed by the liberating “People’s Army” and another million were imprisoned in reeducation camps. Some 165,000 South Vietnamese died in these camps.

In the Iraq War, Iran plays the role of North Vietnam. Iran borders Iraq and the two nations have a history of hostility. During the 1980s, the two nations fought a long and bitter war. There is little doubt that Iran has aided and funded the Iraqi insurgents. The only question is to what extent Iran was involved.

According to a Federation of American Scientists report to Congress from 2007, Iran is widely believed to be responsible for training Iraqi insurgents in IED techniques and training them in advanced bomb-making techniques, such as how to create an explosively formed projectile (EFP), an IED that is capable of destroying American armored vehicles. Iran is also believed to have supplied insurgents with advanced technology such as passive infrared sensors for triggering IEDs.

Further, weapons of Iranian origin have been captured in Iraq. ABC News reported in 2006 that IEDs and anti-tank weapons had been recovered that were manufactured in Iranian factories in that same year, suggesting that Iran was funneling weapons directly to the insurgents without even routing them through the black market. Coalition forces have captured at least 20 Iranian agents smuggling arms into Iraq according to the Washington Post. In December 2009, a skirmish erupted after Iranian troops seized several oil wells in a disputed oil field along the Iraq-Iran border north of Basra. The standoff ended several days later. A New York Times report notes that several of Moqtada al Sadr’s Mahdi army fighters are believed to have trained with the Revolutionary Guards in Iran and Iranian-supported Hezbollah fighters in Lebanon.

There is also a question of how much control Iran holds over the Iraqi insurgents. Many of the insurgents are Sunni while Iran is predominantly Shia. The Sunni insurgents, many of whom are former Baathists and backers of Saddam Hussein, are arguably more autonomous than the Shiite militias.

Many of the Shiites are led by Moqtada al Sadr. In the first years after the fall of Saddam, Sadr’s Mahdi army fought the coalition forces and provisional government for control of the country. Sadr has since lived for long periods in Iran where he has studied towards becoming an ayatollah. His followers have been a major political force in Iraqi elections and have gained seats in the Iraqi cabinet.

Reportedly, during President Bush’s troop surge in 2007, Sadr went to Iran and instructed his followers to avoid confrontation, although fighting continued later that year and in 2008. In August 2008, Sadr ordered a halt to combat operations. Similarly, in the fall of 2007, Iran pledged to stop the flow the weapons and support to Iraqi insurgents. Coinciding with the surge, Iran’s pledge came shortly before attacks in Iraq dropped off sharply. Sadr issued another such order in September 2011. The implication is that Iran and Sadr may have been intentionally avoiding conflict with U.S. troops in the hopes that President Obama would withdraw American forces.

An American withdrawal will almost certainly embolden the Iranians. Its leaders, who believe in the apocalyptic Twelver sect of Islam, will view the unilateral departure of U.S. troops as a gift from on high. President Ahmadinejad, exemplified the view of Iran when he told CNN last week that “The United States has become weaker and weaker. Now they are hated in the region.” The absence of American forces in the region will almost certainly make the Iranians become more aggressive. The question is what form their aggression will take.

The worst case scenario would be a full-scale conventional invasion of Iraq by the Iranian military. This is the same scenario that played out in Vietnam after the U.S. withdrawal there. The picture of an American helicopter perched atop a Saigon apartment building while refugees clamber up a wooden ladder to escape the invading North Vietnamese army is an enduring image that has shaped U.S. foreign policy for four decades.

Although the Iraqis fought the Iranians to a standstill in the brutal war of attrition in the 1980s, it is unlikely that the newly reformed Iraqi army could stand up to an Iranian onslaught. To prevent the country’s fall, American assistance would undoubtedly be needed, but it is doubtful whether it could be expected. Bipartisan opposition in congress would make it difficult for President Obama to redeploy troops to Iraq in an emergency, assuming he even wanted to.

More likely though, Iran will try to bring Iraq into its sphere of influence through threats, diplomacy and coercion. It is possible that Iran will rekindle the sectarian violence that plagued Iraq before the surge in order to undermine the Iraqi government. Supporters of Moqtada al Sadr, a stalwart Iranian ally, can be counted upon to look out for Iranian interests.

The absence of American power in the Middle East will create a power vacuum that the Iranians will try to fill. Saudi Arabia and Turkey will be their principal competition. Both nations have formidable militaries, but cannot compete with a nuclear armed Iran. With the apparent resignation of the west to a nuclear Iran, both Turkey and Saudi Arabia are reported to be developing nuclear weapons. A nuclear arms race in the Middle East among Islamic nations seeking to counterbalance Iranian influence appears increasingly likely.

As America’s influence in Iraq wanes, the Iraqis already appear to be moving closer to Tehran. The Wall Street Journal reports that Iraq, Iran and Syria, an Iranian client state, recently agreed to build an oil pipeline through the three countries. Iraq has also been on e of the few nations to support Syria’s beleaguered President Assad, who is the target of an Arab Spring uprising.

Iran and Iraq together control 18 percent of the world’s oil reserves according to an estimate by Finance Manila. The two countries rank third and fourth in the world respectively, trailing only Saudi Arabia and Venezuela. If Iran could gain control or influence over Iraqi oil, the world’s economy would be threatened. The interruption of Libyan oil, which constitutes only three percent of world reserves, threatened to crash the world economy once again and forced NATO to go to war.

The Iraq War is not over just because U.S. troops are leaving. Rather, it is entering a new and perhaps even more dangerous phase. In a disturbing replay of events, the U.S. is once again ignoring an enemy that is already at war… and has been since 1979.


As published on Examiner.com:


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