The strongest tribe

By HAROLD RHODE
November 9, 2011 22:24

Bringing troops home from Iraq and Afghanistan may spell failure for our missions in both places.




US soldiers in Iraq [illustrative photo]

US soldiers in Iraq 311 (R). (photo credit: Saad Shalash / Reuters)

Most Iraqi political leaders of all factions have privately said that they want US troops to stay. In Baghdad, you could hear them time and time and again imploring us to do so. Cultural pride, however, a major component of Middle Eastern culture, does not allow them to say so publicly, lest they appear weak in a rough neighborhood. They can, however, respond to a request that appears to be from others. We might, for example, say that we would like to stay in Iraq in order to help ensure security, and the Iraqis would then be appearing to be to “acceding to our [Iraqi] request,” and their cultural pride would remain intact.

What is needed is for US President Barack Obama to publicly make a commitment that we are there in some form for the long haul – however vague the statement is not important – the Iraqi leaders can make an appropriate arrangement that would preserve their dignity in public.

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Absent such a statement from Obama, the Iraqis had no choice other than to ask the Americans to leave.

What alarms the Iraqis is precisely that bad neighborhood, where almost all of their neighbors – Iran, Saudi Arabia, Syria and even Jordan – have been doing their utmost to make sure that the remarkable experiment of a democratic country, which successfully includes all its citizens, totally fails.

As long as some Americans remain in Iraq and are willing to do what is needed to do counter the negative involvement of Iraq’s neighbors, especially Iran, Iraq’s politicians believe they have the maneuverability to stand up and continue working towards a system of government that that includes every ethnic and religious group, and that at least quietly could stand up to its neighbors.

Anbar, for example – the Sunni-dominated area in western Iraq – was, until President George Bush’s surge in the mid-2000s, well on its way to becoming an a l - Q a i d a - d o m i n a t e d statelet. Before the surge, only three of the 21 major tribal groupings supported the US in some way. When President Bush sent in the Marines, who demonstrated that America was serious about eliminating the terrorists, however, within less than a year, almost all of the Sunni tribes had switched from supporting the fundamentalists to supporting the Americans – all because America had demonstrated that it was the strongest power in the area. As the locals put it, the Marines were the strongest “tribe” in the area. Of course, as Osama bin Laden observed about people respecting the “Strong Horse,” everyone wanted to be allied with the winner.

In less than a year, therefore, Anbar, the most dangerous place in Iraq, became one of its most peaceful areas. It was American resolve and staying power that had changed everything.

As the locals said, they sided with us, and, more importantly, respected us because they knew they could rely on us.

How come all the Iraqi leaders are now jumping on the bandwagon to demand that the Americans leave, even though the Iraqis are at the same time quaking in their boots at the prospect? Iraq’s leaders know that in reality, they are too weak stand up by themselves to the despotic rulers of Iran, Syria, Saudi Arabia and Jordan.

They also know that President Obama repeatedly declared during his campaign and in the first year of his presidency that he wanted America out of Iraq. They must have correctly heard it as an announcement that America was not to be relied on. If the Americans say they are leaving, then, as in our inner cities, the Iraqis have no choice other than to make deals with whoever they are stuck with, living in this neighborhood. Why, then, should anyone be surprised when Iraq’s leaders say nice things about the neighbors they hate? Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, for example, said there was no reason to change the regime in Syria – which may be in turmoil but is closely allied with Iraq’s eastern neighbor, Iran. Maliki was quick to announce his accommodation to those neighbors, who want nothing more than to obliterate the Iraq democratic experiment, and probably him along with it.

In the past, assuming he could rely on the US over the long term, Maliki would have been much more circumspect, but he sees now that this option is not on the table. Sadly, that is potentially a recipe for disaster in Iraq. If we do not wish the entire region to be overrun by Muslim extremists sitting on half the world’s oil and using it to fund the Islamic obligation of a worldwide Caliphate – as is being implanted now in Europe, Africa and North and South America – we will need to return to Iraq. At that time, though, it will be at even a greater cost of life and treasure – which probably means that we will not.

Instead, we shall probably continue accommodating the Islamists, as we have already been doing in Saudi Arabia, Iran, Egypt, Turkey and South America.

Obama’s desire to bring American troops home from Iraq and Afghanistan, instead of making a commitment to leave a small force as his military emphatically recommended, may instead spell failure for our missions in both places. But evidently Obama’s political agenda matters more to him than the security of the West.

The writer has a Ph.D. in Islamic History and worked on Iraq in the office of the US Secretary of Defense. He is now a senior adviser to Hudson Institute, New York. This piece originally appeared on the Hudson, New York website.


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