Comment: Iraq – Better, worse or more of the same?

19 March 2011

As the eyes and attention of the West have shifted focus to the global economy and Afghanistan over the last year, Iraq seems to have fallen off the radar. After the US spent nearly $800 billion dollars and lost 4,400 American soldiers since 2003 – not to mention the casualties – it is quite remarkable how quickly one forgets. Indeed, this curious silence in the public discourse raises an intriguing question: are things steadily improving or are we just conveniently oblivious?

Let’s start with the good news – there is not much of it. Perhaps the most impressive fact is that violence today is down more than 90% from 2006 levels, a troublesome period in which a civil war appeared imminent. What makes this achievement all the more striking is that US troop levels have diminished from 170k to 50k over the same time frame. Without a doubt, we ought to rightly attribute these improvements in overall safety to the US military and its allies.

On the political front, the story is far less auspicious. Granted that the Iraqi government continues to operate under a new coalition led by Prime Minister Nouri Maliki, there are two main reasons to remain sceptical of such prima facie progress. Firstly, it took roughly nine months of deadlock in 2010 to form this new government. This suggests immense levels of division, which will be difficult to overcome and will certainly test the Iraqi appetite for democratic governance.

Secondly, and more ominously, the winning coalition from the 2010 elections was essentially shoved aside, as many of its votes were dubiously disqualified by Prime Minister Maliki. Instead of becoming the rightful Prime Minister as the leader of the largest bloc, Iyad Allawi was “persuaded” to accepting a leading position in the strategic policy council. The truism that it matters not who votes, but who counts the votes thus still holds true in Iraq. That alone should temper optimists.

Given that the positive signs today are mixed with conspicuous displays of illegality and formidable future challenges, one cannot help but notice the continuity. Former President Bush prematurely declared “Mission Accomplished” in May 2003, under the mistaken impression that major combat operations were finished. Eight years later, after a long-headache that necessitated a “surge” in troops in 2006, Iraq seems to have reached another inflection point. So why might we remain doubtful this time, rather than fall prey to misleading signs of progress?

In short, the current state of Iraq remains in flux. While it is clearly less violent than in 2006, the success of the “surge” must be understood in the proper context. For the true believers, the story is relatively simple: the military has achieved greater safety and provided the conditions under which a coalition government could form. Yet the crux is that these gains must not be over-stated. At best, they are necessary but not sufficient for long-term democratic prospects. At worst, these modest achievements signify nothing more than a pyrrhic victory.

The loss America has experienced in terms of blood, capital and prestige ought to make anyone wary of calling Iraq a success – even with a qualification attached. Any hopeful indications of improvement evident today should therefore be taken with extreme caution, as they exist in the indisputable context of a misguided war. In essence, Iraq remains largely the same since 2003: it is still mired by corruption and controversy with a slight glimmer of hope emanating from the facade of democratic institutions.

Brit Moller

Image: Christiaan Briggs