Last week, President Obama announced that all U.S. troops will be withdrawn from Iraq by the end of the year, boldly stating that, “America’s war in Iraq will be over.” But, as many critics have pointed out, while America’s war may be ending, Iraq’s war may just be starting.
Near daily attacks continue throughout Iraq; waves of violence have left August and September as some of the deadliest months that Iraq has witnessed in years. These attacks are proof that insurgents still pose an immense threat to the country’s stability. Underscoring the reality that few places in Iraq are safe, they raise questions about the Iraqi government’s ability to maintain security as U.S. troops prepare to leave. With the day-to-day business of the Iraqi military focusing on the restoration of basic security within the country, the situation has improved drastically since the chaos of 2004 and 2008 – a positive sign. Yet this has not resulted in an improved ability to address external security threats. Highlighted by the recent incursions by Turkey and Iran that elicited a mere whimper of protest, the Iraqi military has proven its inability to defend its territorial sovereignty.
While security concerns may be overcome, the real war will be a political one. With the failure of the 2010 national election to provide any bloc with a clear mandate, the tenuous national alliance that came out on top continues to face a political stalemate. Rival interests and growing tension among the blocs have resulted in the postponement of nearly all political reforms, and the referendums that came out of the 2010 election have effectively been discarded. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has instead resorted to consolidating his own power in an attempt to bypass this stalemate. In doing so, his policies increasingly resemble those of his authoritarian predecessor.
With the political process stalled, Iraqi citizens have suffered the repercussions. Iraqis have seen a severe decline in basic public services; water and electricity shortages are rampant throughout the country. Dissatisfaction with economic conditions in Iraq is at its highest in nearly a decade and unemployment hovers between 15 – 20%. Impoverished and fed up with the low standard of living, citizens have organized protests that have brought thousands to Baghdad’s Tahrir Square. Intensified by political turmoil in the region and rallying around the image of the “Arab Awakening,” Iraqi citizens are unlikely to be patient while the current government attempts to restore public services and continue the process of state-building. Whether this will compel political leaders to increase their political efforts or propel the country into greater chaos remains to be seen.
Yet, despite the problems Iraq now faces, critics are wrong to argue for a continued presence of U.S. troops. A mere 3,000 – 5,000 U.S. troops will not prevent widespread terrorist attacks nor will they force Iraqi politicians to work productively. They may in fact do more harm than good by providing an excuse for continuing the status quo. While it may be hard to remain optimistic about the future of Iraq in the face of such overwhelming problems, there is little that a continued U.S. military presence could help to achieve. Perhaps with the withdrawal of troops, the U.S. government can finally stop trying to win the war in Iraq and instead focus on providing stability through economic and diplomatic channels, something it should have been doing from the start.
It’s now time for Iraqis to take responsibility for their own future. Whether they are successful or not, it is up to them to take ownership for the decisions that shape the future of their country. And while the U.S. should be there to help, it should be in a diplomatic and economic role, not a military one.
How the war ends in Iraq is not for President Obama to decide; Iraq’s war will be decided by Iraq.
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