The Taliban’s rapid takeover and the chaotic US withdrawal from Afghanistan have sounded alarm bells in neighboring Iraq, the other “eternal war” the United States plans to emerge from by this year.
Parallels and differences between Baghdad and Kabul have been voiced by Iraqi politicians and pundits in recent days, with many expressing shock and bewilderment at the suddenness of Washington’s Afghan collapse.
“Nobody expected this kind of withdrawal,” Bayar Mustafa of Kurdistan-Hewler University told Erbil to Asia Times. “They even left all of their personal weapons behind. What kind of withdrawal is it? It is a big failure for the United States.
President Joe Biden is also now the third U.S. leader in a row to support an end to America’s “eternal wars,” promising on July 26 that “in Iraq … we’re not going to be, by the end of the year, in a combat mission.
At the same time, the administration in Baghdad has many similarities to the one that just collapsed in Kabul, with Iraq still a very fragile state 18 years after the US-led coalition invaded and occupied the country for the first time.
These similarities include a central government that lacks national authority while plagued by allegations of corruption, bigotry and incompetence.
At the same time, Baghdad and Erbil – the capital of northern Kurdish-controlled Iraq – have received colossal amounts of military and financial aid from the United States and its allies since 2003.
Yet the largely Western-trained Iraqi security forces remain divided, with their loyalty and effectiveness often questioned, as do the US-trained Afghan national security forces which quickly collapsed. after the withdrawal of American troops.
“Currently, there is a US military advisory team in Iraq of around 2,500 troops,” Ibrahim Al-Marashi, associate professor at California State University at San Marcos, told Asia Times. “This is roughly the same number of troops as there were in Afghanistan on the eve of the withdrawal.”
Under such circumstances, “the general public here has been psychologically touched by the impact of the US withdrawal from Afghanistan,” Dlawer Ala’Aldeen, of the Middle East Research Institute in Erbil, told Asia Times. “They asked themselves, can we count on the United States to stay – and what if they leave? “
Yet despite all the similarities between the two US-led missions, there are also key differences.
On the one hand, the United States has already attempted to withdraw from Iraq, with what Washington now sees as dire consequences.
“In 2011, former US President Barak Obama withdrew US forces from here, long before they decided to withdraw from Afghanistan,” Mustafa recalls. “What brought them back was ISIS.”
In 2014, the Islamic State swept away much of Syria and Iraq.
“Some 66,000 Iraqi soldiers, trained and equipped by the United States have been defeated by perhaps 500 ISIS fighters,” Mustafa adds.
A US-led coalition, alongside Kurdish forces and a coordination group of pro-Iranian Iraqi Shiite militias, known as the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF), staged the possible response.
Since then, ISIS has been largely defeated but is still active in Iraq and neighboring Syria.
“There is a great lesson here to be drawn on the weakness of the government in Baghdad and the importance of the American presence,” adds Mustafa.
Another major difference between Iraq and Afghanistan is that aside from ISIS, the other main beneficiary of an exit from the United States would likely be a particularly problematic country for the United States.
“Iran,” says Ala’Aldeen. “It’s the elephant in the room. If there was no American sway here, Iran would have a free hand through Iraq and Syria, to Lebanon. “
Pro-Iranian groups in Iraq have also called on the United States to end its presence in the country.
Some groups within the PMF have also attacked US bases in the country in recent months, including with drones and rockets.
However, at the same time, “the militias in Iraq which are linked to Iran do not have to take control of the country, like the Taliban”, underlines Al-Marashi, “because they are already in parliament”.
Indeed, the pro-Iranian Shiite parties already have significant weight in Iraqi domestic politics.
It was pressure from these groups that sent Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa Al-Kadhimi to Washington in July to have Biden announce the imminent end of US combat operations.
“If American support had waned, national opposition to these pro-Iranian groups would not have the critical mass to confront them and prevent Iranian hegemony,” Ala’Aldeen said.
Meanwhile, US military support for Kurdish forces has also angered a second neighbor: Turkey.
Ankara alleges that some of these US-backed forces are linked to Turkey’s Kurdish separatist guerrillas – the PKK – and called on the US to stop helping them.
Turkey has also launched military operations against suspected PKK bases in Kurdish-controlled northern Iraq – known as the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG).
Ankara also maintains a series of military “observation posts” inside Iraqi territory.
“If the United States leaves, Iraq and the KRG will be even more vulnerable to Turkey and Iran,” says Ala’Aldeen.
Indeed, “Turkey is already testing the reaction of the United States and the international community,” Mustafa said, referring to a Turkish drone strike on August 17 on a clinic in Sinjar, northwestern China. Iraq.
The strike killed a senior Iraqi Kurdish official with links to the PKK, as well as at least two others.
“The Iraqi government could not even condemn the action,” Mustafa adds. “It makes us feel that the country risks becoming a battleground between Turkey and the Iranians if the United States and the West withdraw.”
Eye on the exit
Meanwhile, since the collapse of the West-backed government began in Kabul, US officials have been keen to stress that there is no parallel with Iraq.
The withdrawal “is clearly not on President Biden’s mind,” US Ambassador to Iraq Matthew Tueller told Kurdish reporters in Erbil on August 11, while promising that the United States was in Iraq “for the long term “.
Yet the events in Afghanistan clearly sparked new thinking in Iraq and elsewhere in the region.
“Many are trying to reposition themselves, to recalculate their options and their views on the United States and their role here in Iraq,” Mustafa explains.
The way these recalculations unfold in the coming months will likely also set the stage for more than Iraqi domestic politics.
As Tueller also told Erbil, “The security of the Middle East is the security of Iraq” – with many people in Baghdad and beyond likely to agree.