Attention of late has focused on the U.S. troop withdrawal schedule for Afghanistan. However, the president’s inability (or unwillingness) to secure a status of forces agreement to leave U.S. forces in Iraq may be a bigger and more serious blunder.
The Iranian-backed Shiite group responsible for most of the attacks against U.S. forces in the final years of the Iraq war is busily reinventing itself as a political organization in ways that could enhance Iran’s influence in post-American Iraq — and perhaps beyond.
In recent months, Asaib Ahl al-Haq — the League of the Righteous — has been rapidly expanding its presence across Iraq, trumpeting the role the once-shadowy group says it played in forcing the departure of U.S. troops with its bomb attacks against American targets.
Not unlike Lebanon, the danger is now of a puppet state in which Iranian surrogates control the levers of power. (“The group’s chief officers have returned from exile in Iran, and they have set about opening a string of political offices, establishing a social services program to aid widows and orphans, and launching a network of religious schools, echoing the methods and structures of one of its close allies, the Lebanese Shiite movement Hezbollah.”) The result could well be a triumph over America and the collapse of an independent Iraqi state just years after we achieved a military victory: “Success would put at the forefront of Iraqi politics a group that openly boasts about its role in killing Americans, something that a former U.S. official who served in Iraq at the height of the attacks described as ‘deeply problematic.’” However, I don’t think a single U.S. senior official (and certainly not the president) has addressed this concern publicly or devised any response.
The president’s notion that, because we have packed up, conflict ends is bizarre. For this to be the case, one must either believe we are the source of conflict or that conflict has no relevance to the United States unless are troops are on the ground. If we have learned anything in the Obama years it is that America’s absence encourages conflict and emboldens the most dangerous players in the region — Iran and al-Qaeda.
In Libya we allowed al-Qaeda to get a foothold while we were taking a victory lap on our light footprint approach. While we were celebrating al-Qaeda’s demise, al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb was spreading in North Africa. As we have sat on the sidelines, 70,000 Syrians have died and Iran has set up shadowy networks to operate in the event Bashar al-Assad does get pushed out. The Post reported earlier this month:
The militias are fighting alongside Syrian government forces to keep Assad in power. But officials think Iran’s long-term goal is to have reliable operatives in Syria in case the country fractures into ethnic and sectarian enclaves.
A senior Obama administration official cited Iranian claims that Tehran was backing as many as 50,000 militiamen in Syria. “It’s a big operation,” the official said. “The immediate intention seems to be to support the Syrian regime. But it’s important for Iran to have a force in Syria that is reliable and can be counted on.”
Iran’s strategy, a senior Arab official agreed, has two tracks. “One is to support Assad to the hilt, the other is to set the stage for major mischief if he collapses.”
No wonder our nominal allies such as Egypt are cozying up to Iran and the mullahs find our threats unpersuasive. Everywhere one looks in the Middle East the pattern is the same: The United States departs or turns a blind eye; anti-U.S. forces move in. Iran becomes more influential in the region.
And now we are on the verge of installing a secretary of defense who opposes sanctions, who declared that Iran is the “center of gravity” in the region, who argued against isolating Iran and who thinks the surge in Iraq was the biggest blunder in U.S. military history. If that is not a recipe for continued instability and violence, I don’t know what is. Moreover, we have sent an unmistakable signal to friendly regimes (e.g. Jordan) that they had better not count on us. We may be indispensable, but we are also indifferent to their concerns.