US combat troops left Iraq by the end of August, fulfilling President Obama's campaign promise to end the war. Operation Iraqi Freedom, intended to liberate Iraqis from Saddam Hussein's tyranny and set Iraq on the path of democracy and prosperity, lasted more than seven years, cost the United States one trillion dollars, and resulted in the deaths of more than 4400 US soldiers and 112,000 Iraqi civilians.
Iraq ranks sixth on the 2010 Foreign Policy Failed States Index, slightly worse than Afghanistan, and struggles to form a government months after elections in March. Only in the past year has Iraq approached pre-2003 levels of oil production, the revenues of which were supposed to have bankrolled rebuilding the country. Living standards are arguably worse now than they were under Saddam. Twenty per cent of Iraqis have been displaced, either as refugees or inside Iraq. Out of 34,000 registered doctors before 2003, only 16,000 remain despite an 8 per cent increase in population and resurgence of diseases such as cholera. It would be hard to find a more misguided and destructive US endeavour in modern history than Operation Iraqi Freedom. As I listened to President Obama's 31 August speech ending Operation Iraqi Freedom, I shed tears of relief.
And yet debate about the wisdom of withdrawal rages on. Critics note the withdrawal, like the initial invasion, was designed with US interests, not Iraq's, in mind. The 31 August deadline to withdraw combat troops from Iraq, leaving 50,000 military support personnel and 13,000 civilians, was self-imposed by the US government. Timing the mission's end during Ramadan was clearly not planned with the input of the Iraqi government. Our 2008 negotiated agreement with Iraq sets only the end of 2011 as a deadline for US troop withdrawal. Government formation after Iraq's 7 March elections has stalled, and violence, while greatly diminished from the chaotic slaughter of 2006–2008, is still unacceptably high. Withdrawing combat troops now threatens Iraq's stability and might undermine what tenuous progress has been made in training Iraqi security and police forces.
It is a complex situation and there is no easy answer. We should stay in Iraq and we should leave. We still have a mission in Iraq, Operation New Dawn. But our overall mission can and should be pursued without force. Democracy and economic development, our new goals, cannot be imposed on any country by the army of an invader. Their presence unjustified since 2003, each day that US troops remain in Iraq is another day too many. Every US soldier stationed in the Middle East detracts from overall regional peace. Every US resource allocated to Iraq is one withheld from Afghanistan, which always was the greater threat to US security.
The lack of a new Iraqi government does not justify either an extension of US combat forces in Iraq or intervention in Iraqi politics. Last December I argued that pursuing a policy of elections at any cost was misguided, and I believe this policy set the stage for the impasse paralysing Iraqi politics today. Elections were pushed through despite serious unresolved issues to satisfy an American timeline that required elections in order to justify keeping the military drawdown on schedule (ours, not Iraq's). Elections are important, but there is more to a healthy democracy than elections. Civil society and a competent and independent judiciary are equally critical. Our race to elections last year has contributed to the delay in government formation this year and undercut the democratic process in Iraq.
Success or failure of Iraq as a country does not depend on how long it takes to form a government. It will depend on Iraqis learning to resolve issues through politics rather than violence. It is vital that the issues of oil revenue-sharing between provinces and the central government be addressed, that electricity and sanitation be provided to the people, and that constitutional reform be conducted, because these are the issues Iraqis have shown themselves willing to kill each other over. These issues threaten the stability and viability of the country, not timetables of elections or withdrawals of troops. Concentrating on the troop withdrawal debate again addresses US domestic politics and ignores the real problems facing Iraqis. Concentrating on delays in forming a government gives the issue more merit than it deserves.
The democratic process is alive and well in Iraq. With elections over, Iraqi politicians are meeting. Several unlikely alliances have formed and dissipated. All of the parties are talking to each other despite vicious disagreement over de-Baathification before the March elections. The process of negotiating and compromising is more important than the end result. These parties, the religious Shia Iraqi National Alliance and the secular inclusive Iraqiya, are the political representations of the sectarianism that threatened to destroy the country in 2006. If, instead of resorting to violence again, these groups meet and talk about how best to share governmental power and responsibility, this is indeed auspicious.
The process will go on longer than Westerners are comfortable with, but it will not go on forever. Impatient Iraqis protest the lack of basic services of clean water, electricity and healthcare, calling not on Americans but on their own leaders to provide it. Iraqi journalists write scathing editorials in Arabic and televise the deplorable living conditions of many Iraqis, demanding Iraqi politicians stop bickering and get governing. The Shia religious authority in Najaf has even pressured politicians to get their act together. On the surface, it looks like a political stalemate. On a deeper level, Iraq is engaged in profound political dialogue, a process we should have refrained from interfering in last year and should again be cautious about meddling in. Iraqis are trying to resolve what kind of country and government they want: a secular or religious one; a strong central government or strong regional governments; integration with the Gulf Arab countries, Iran or the Levant?
More than sectarian or ethnic issues, Iraqis are divided on the above questions, and only Iraqis know for sure what answers they can live with. The end result may be an Iraqi government the US finds difficult to work with or which opposes a number of US policies, but this would not signify failure. It would mean US–Iraq relations that resemble those we have with many other countries, including some allies.
As America withdraws from Iraq, its actions will be closely monitored by other countries anxiously watching to see that Americans take responsibility for the chaos they created. It is troubling that there has been no mention of Iraq's refugees and internally displaced persons (IDPs), even though the US military drawdown is likely to exacerbate this problem by creating a new population of unemployed who will be targeted by remnants of al-Qaeda and other insurgent groups. The 2006 Samarra mosque bombing triggered the largest refugee and IDP crisis in the Middle East since the 1948 Palestinian exodus, with 2 million refugees outside Iraq and another 2 million internally displaced persons. Most refugees either cannot return or have no intention of returning to Iraq and refugee return is not a priority of the Iraqi government. Indeed, premature returns would exacerbate simmering sectarian tensions and overwhelm Iraq's inadequate welfare and human services systems.
We have not even touched on adequately resolving this crisis by breaking barriers to resettlement in the United States and providing humanitarian assistance to refugees and IDPs. The repercussions of Iraq's refugee crisis have the potential to feed domestic and regional conflicts for decades to come, for which the US will be deemed responsible.