An American century in Iraq?

An American century in Iraq?
Analysis: Washington has been involved in Iraq for at least a quarter of a century already, notes Paul Iddon.
5 min read
17 August, 2017
The stars and stripes will be seen in Iraq for years to come [Getty]

A recent piece in The New York Times concerning Iranian influence in Iraq has prompted journalist Curt Mills to ask, in The National Interest, if the newspaper of record wants 'America in Iraq for One Hundred Years?'

While the rejoinder piece questions the effectiveness of American "constancy" in Iraq, the headline poses a much more interesting question: how long will the United States ultimately end up engaged in Iraq in one way or another?

Washington has already been engaged in this troubled country to varying degrees since Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait in August 1990, more than a quarter-century ago.

In the early 1980s, when the United States began to help Iraq fend off Iran's counteroffensive in the brutal eight year war between the two countries, Saddam Hussein had an interesting anecdote, especially in retrospect, for the then State Department's top Middle East diplomat, Richard Murphy.

"America's attitude towards 'the Third World' is like the attitude of an Iraqi peasant when he takes a new bride: three days of tea and honey and then off to the fields to work like a serf for the rest of his life," the Iraqi dictator told Murphy.

In run-up the 1991 Gulf War, the United States sought to execute a swift victory against Baghdad without becoming hopelessly bogged down in Iraq, as they had in Vietnam. US President George HW Bush alluded to the parallel many times - seeking to assuage worries among an American public with the Vietnam fiasco still fresh in their minds that confronting Baghdad "will not be another Vietnam".

Senator John McCain was asked about then President George W Bush's suggestion that the US could stay in Iraq 'for fifty years' - to which he controversially answered: 'Make it a hundred.'

While commentators at the time spoke about the war in terms of days, weeks and months the, now late, journalist Christopher Hitchens ventured that America's engagement in Iraq could well last "something like a hundred years".

During the 2008 presidential election, eighteen years later, Republican Senator John McCain was asked about then President George W Bush's suggestion that the US could stay in Iraq "for fifty years" - to which he controversially answered: "Make it a hundred." McCain elaborated by arguing that, once combat fatalities decreased substantially, America could feasibly retain an "open-ended commitment" in Iraq as it has done in Japan and South Korea for decades.

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McCain was speaking on the eve of the third Iraq handoff when the third president in a row, inherited a state-of-affairs upon entering the Oval Office whereby the United States had a degree of direct military involvement in Iraq. This year concludes the fourth handoff.

The first handoff took place in 1993 when Bill Clinton was sworn in as the 43rd US president after defeating George HW Bush the year before. Clinton inherited an American commitment to Iraq, which saw US warplanes patrolling the north and south of the country after Saddam brutally suppressed simultaneous Kurdish and Shia Arab uprisings using helicopter gunships.

Clinton's eight years in office saw him attack Iraq numerous times - the most significant such incident being Operation Desert Fox, a four-day bombardment of Iraq's military infrastructure in December 1998 - and retain the no-fly zones established late in his predecessor's tenure.

George W Bush inherited all this in 2001, and went on to invade Iraq and depose Saddam in 2003, sparking a long and controversial war which would see US troops on Iraqi soil peak at 180,000 four years later.

While Obama routinely pledged 'no boots on the ground' approximately 5-6,000 US troops, ranging from 'advisers' to special forces, returned to help Iraqi and Kurdish forces fight IS

Barack Obama then entered the Oval Office in 2009, after running on a platform to withdraw all US forces from Iraq. A withdrawal of US troops followed in December 2011. However the Islamic State group's takeover of Mosul and swathes of Iraq in June 2014, and its subsequent mass-murder of the Yazidi minority and attack on Iraqi Kurdistan the following August, prompted Obama to return US forces to Iraq.

While he routinely pledged "no boots on the ground" approximately 5-6,000 US troops, ranging from "advisers" to special forces, returned to help Iraqi and Kurdish forces fight IS.

Since January, President Donald Trump has presided over the recent US-backed Iraqi recapture of Mosul from IS. While Trump said several times in his campaign that he opposed the Iraq War, his administration may well retain a residual force presence in Iraq for the foreseeable future.

US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has already hinted at this when he said US-led coalition forces would remain in Iraq after IS' defeat "for stabilisation purposes". US Defense Secretary James Mattis has also voiced his support for a continued post-IS American troop presence in Iraq.

Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi has said that American troops remaining in Iraq after IS' defeat were advisers to the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF), as opposed to combat troops. This is a distinction Abadi is reportedly making to "get around required parliamentary approval for their presence".

In other words, US troops are likely to remain in Iraq for some time, ostensibly to assist with post-IS security, which may well include assisting the Iraqis with more counter-insurgency operations against IS remnants.

It's obviously unclear from the vantage point of the present if America will stay in Iraq for another 75 years or if it will retain, as some suspected before the 2011 withdrawal, a long-term troop presence of the kind it has had in Germany and Japan - as McCain alluded to - since the Second World War. Only time will ultimately determine this. 

Paul Iddon is a freelance journalist based in Erbil, Iraqi Kurdistan, who writes about Middle East affairs.

Follow him on Twitter: @pauliddon