When I watched the last US combat battalions leave Iraq on Wednesday night, I couldn’t help but recall the scene when the last Soviet troops departed Afghanistan on Feb. 15, 1989. In both cases, the two governments soft-pedaled the hard truth about the strategic defeats that the withdrawals represented.
Official Washington, in particular, has been eager to spin the Iraq withdrawal as a success, a prelude to a bright Iraqi future in which the United States can begin recouping its $1 trillion-plus investment over the past seven years (not to mention, get something back for the 4,416 American soldiers who died during the adventure).
But the prospects for long-term US domination of Iraq appear dim. Once the 50,000 American military “advisers” are gone, scheduled to depart by the end of 2011, the United States will have to rely on a small army of State Department security contractors to protect a network of diplomatic offices, including a giant embassy in Baghdad and consulates in Erbil, Kurdistan, and in Basra in the south.
Meanwhile, any residual US military presence, however it’s packaged, remains unpopular with an Iraqi society that has resented the bloody US occupation that has left hundreds of thousands of Iraqis dead and millions injured, unemployed, sweltering in the heat, and homeless.
For instance, supporters of radical Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr have vowed to take up arms again if the US withdrawal is not completed on schedule. In the Shiite holy city of Najaf, a two-acre section of Martyrs' cemetery has been set aside for a renewed uprising if the US forces remain after the withdrawal deadline, the Washington Post reported on Aug. 18.
"If the Americans leave, which we don't think they will, we'll make it a burial site for our parents," said cemetery supervisor Abu Mohammed. "If their exit is delayed, we will fight and give our blood.”
Already, 4,250 Sadrist fighters and supporters are buried in the cemetery, victims of violent clashes with occupation forces. The threat of a renewed uprising also is a reminder that Sadr’s unilateral cease-fire in 2007 was a key factor in tamping down the violence that had been ripping Iraq apart.
Likewise, Sunni militants, many of whom were bought off by US payments to change sides starting in 2006, also have been showing their discontent with how the Iraqi government has been treating them. In recent weeks, Sunni militants have attacked with bombs, mortars and rockets inside Baghdad.
As the violence again spikes up, Iraq's government remains deadlocked over how to apportion power after an inconclusive election last March. The likelihood that US-favored officials can continue to protect American interests – or even want to – grows dimmer.