By M K Bhadrakumar
United States Vice President Joseph Biden's mission to Baghdad over the July 4 weekend brought attention back on America's "other" war - the one in Iraq that has been all but forgotten amid the incessant bloodshed and spreading chaos in Afghanistan. No doubt, the war in Iraq is drawing to a close; the invader is packing bags and going home.
A country that stood at the threshold of the OECD (Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development) 20 years ago in terms of social and economic indices barely survives. It no more matters who won or who lost the war.
The endgame in Iraq holds meaning in certain ways for the war in Afghanistan.
One main purpose of Biden's mission on a day that America was celebrating its independence was to reassure the Iraqi nationalists that the Barack Obama administration intends to stick to the time schedule to end the military occupation of their country. Biden said, "I hope you know we've kept our commitment so far, and on August 31 we will change our military mission by drawing closer to all of you, not further apart."
The US troop strength in Iraq at present stands at 77,500, the lowest since the 2003 invasion and less than half of the peak level of 165,000 during the "surge". This will fall to 50,000 by September 1, which suggests that at an average roughly 2,500 troops a week will be withdrawn through July and August. With this we will see the end of the US's "combat mission" in Iraq.
How, beyond that defining moment, the US proposes to retain the power to shape events in Iraq and the wider region remains a big question. Uncertainty envelops the fate of the US troops remaining in Iraq after September 1. As per commitments, they are also to be pulled out of Iraq by the end of 2011. However, there is continuing speculation that Washington and Baghdad may renegotiate the terms of the troop withdrawal so that provisions can be made for some form of long-term US-Iraqi military agreement. Unlike in Afghanistan's case, the US has well-established military bases and "lily pads" in Iraq's neighborhood.
Biden claimed the US had no "hidden agenda" in Iraq, but the fact is there are pressure groups in Washington seeking to slow the drawdown. This is where the political alignments in Iraq and the calculus of power within the next government that assumes office in Baghdad after the March 27 parliamentary elections become important.
The massive US$750 million American Embassy in Baghdad, sprawling across 42 hectares along the ancient banks of the Tigris and staffed by over 1,200 diplomats, soldiers and personnel drawn from various wings of the US government, does exude an air of permanence. So indeed does the quaint "little Americas" replicated painstakingly within the perimeters of dozens of US military bases scattered all over Iraq.
Without doubt, if the US pulls its troops out from Iraq by the end of 2011, its ability to influence the country will dramatically decline, and the US will have to redefine its role not only in Iraq itself but also in the wider region, including with key allies like Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Jordan or Turkey, which surround Iraq.
Countries like Iraq and Afghanistan carry the curse of geography, which inevitably makes them hubs of regional politics. Which is why the lengths to which Obama will go to fulfill his commitment to rid America of a war he always opposed still remains an open issue, no matter what Biden maintained during his visit to Baghdad.
In Afghanistan's case, Obama's dilemma is manifold as there are other issues of US global strategy involved - the future role of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) as a global security organization, the US's approach toward China's rise, and simply the desirability of keeping a military presence in such a vital area as Southwest Asia.
But other determinants ultimately dictate the outcome in Iraq. First there is the doubt that the US has the ability to shepherd the squabbling Iraqi politicians belonging to the myriad of parties into a shuffle that is willing to acquiesce with the perpetuation of the foreign military occupation of their country. All Biden would say - and in a somewhat plaintive tone - was: "In my humble opinion, in order for you [Iraqis] to achieve your goals, you must have all communities' voices represented in this new government - proportionately ... all are going to have to play a meaningful role in this new government for it to work, in my humble opinion."
Incumbent Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, who enjoys US support, is desperately keen to keep his job and head the new government, but he leads a Shi'ite alliance - State of Law - which has a serious problem to work with the US's favorite proxy, Iyad Allawi, to form a coalition government. But the conundrum is such that although Allawi is a Shi'ite himself and heads Iraqia, a "secular" coalition - as secular, arguably, as can be found in post-Saddam Hussein Iraq - it also comprises some Sunni groups the State of Law would find distasteful as allies.
Maliki's best bet in the interest of political stability would be to form a coalition with the Iraqi National Accord, an alliance of Shi'ites who are loyal to Muqtada al-Sadr, the radical cleric viscerally opposed to the US occupation, and the Islamic Supreme Council (ISCI) of Iraq. But then, both the Sadrists and the ISCI reject Maliki's leadership and the US also views them suspiciously for their closeness to Iran.
Curiously, the US is already grappling with the reality of Afghan politics spinning out of its control. It is no longer that easy for the American viceroys to micromanage President Hamid Karzai and his brother in Kandahar, leave alone the plethora of interest groups that have sprung up, tasted power and have come to like it.
Paradoxically, Shi'ite empowerment in Iraq - like Pashtun empowerment - would undoubtedly have a political logic, and was probably a historical necessity, but the Iraqi Sunnis will not accept a political framework that excludes them. Indeed, on the eve of the US's withdrawal of combat troops, Iraq remains divided along other fault lines, too, as revealed by the outbreak of fighting in early July between Iraqi army troops and the Kurdish Peshmerga militia in the northern regions.
US forces have been inserting themselves so far betwixt the antagonists by jointly patrolling with the Iraqi army units and with the Kurdish Peshmerga. Significantly, the outgoing commander of the US troops in Iraq, General Ray Odierno, has warned of the very real danger of another Iraqi civil war involving the Kurds and the Arabs and has suggested that it might be necessary to bring in United Nations peacekeeping forces when the US vacates the occupation. Shades of Afghanistan!
Surge of regionalism
Second, the decline of the US influence in Iraq also coincides with the sharp increase in the influence of the regional powers surging to claim the political vacuum resulting from the decline of US influence - Iran in particular. Washington will need to factor in such an eventuality with regard to Afghanistan as well.
Tehran is already dealing with Iraq as a "normal" country with which it is on manifestly "brotherly" terms. Iranian exports, which stood at $1 billion in 2007, are cruising comfortably toward the $10 billion mark. Ironically, it is the Iraqi smugglers who may lethally sabotage US-sponsored sanctions against Iran.
Pakistan is capable of playing a similar role in Afghanistan, but the issue is whether it has the political wisdom to do so.
A politico-economic partnership between the two largest Shi'ite-majority powers in the region holds profound implications for the geopolitics of the entire Middle East. An Afghan-Pakistan confederation - possibly with Uzbekistan alongside - similarly has the potential to redraw the geopolitics of South and Central Asia in terms of communication routes, energy security, trade and investment. As the well-known Middle East expert and author Patrick Seale puts it, "Iraq, Iran, Turkey, Syria, Qatar and others are already making deals and forming alliances outside the American orbit."
The US worked hard against perceived Iranian influence over Iraqi affairs but failed. The US has tacitly recognized the inevitability of a preponderant Iranian influence and is even willing to tap into it provided it remains benign and cooperative. A similar US approach toward a Pakistani role in Afghanistan is entirely conceivable.
On the other hand, Iraqis - like Afghans - are great nationalists. They may be prepared to view Tehran favorably as a regional ally and will be gratified to take Iranian help in their reconstruction but, as the well-known American academic on the Middle East Juan Cole argued recently, "they [Iraqis] are unlikely to take their marching orders" from Tehran.
In sum, Obama's AfPak strategy could draw morals from Iran's role as a factor of stability in Iraq. Pakistani strategists will need to be cautious about the feasibility of their desire to gain "strategic depth" in Afghanistan - wrapping Kabul in rings of friendship and cooperation is one thing, but any expectation of exercising "control" over the power structure there in the long-term may prove far-fetched.
Biden promised the Iraqis, who still lack even rudimentary essential services or infrastructure, that Washington would remain engaged. He said, "As you continue to stand up and build your democracy, we'll be there with you economically, politically, socially, science, education," he said. "I've been put in charge of our government's effort to unite all the elements of our government, from the Department of Education to the Department of Commerce to the Department of Science and Technology - to work with you if you want us to."
It is extremely doubtful if Iraqis take these words seriously. There will be skepticism about the US's capacity to deliver as its own economic stimulus fails to deliver the intended results at home.
This syndrome may well be repeated in Afghanistan, too. The US and the recession-ridden European countries may be disinclined to bankroll Afghanistan in a post-conflict situation. It is here that regional countries like China, Saudi Arabia or India can play a role that need not be viewed in rival capitals - Moscow, Tehran or Islamabad - as a zero-sum game. The forthcoming international conference in Kabul on Tuesday will be an occasion to ponder over the politics of aid for Afghanistan.
Indeed, Iraq is far better placed than Afghanistan in a "post-American" era. The Iraqi military patrols the cities and Iraq can generate an income. On June 29, Baghdad approved a deal with Shell to develop 25-30 trillion cubic feet of gas reserves in the Basra region. Seale concluded: "Money will flow in. Iraq will slowly rebuild itself from the devastation of war. A political formula for governing the country will eventually be found."
However, at the root of this optimism lies a startling reality, which would have a huge relevance for Obama's Afghan strategy even as he prepares to rework it by the yearend: The Iraqis have a government that works reasonably well, which became possible only because the US let go and allowed Iraq to seek out its natural habitat, and, secondly, because Washington drew a timeline in the sand for the end of occupation - and the desert winds ravishing the dunes refused to blow it away.
Ambassador M K Bhadrakumar was a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service. His assignments included the Soviet Union, South Korea, Sri Lanka, Germany, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Uzbekistan, Kuwait and Turkey.