16 Jul 2008

From Iraq to Afghanistan

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George Friedman’s latest Stratfor analysis is available in full here.

In some sense, the United States has created what it said it wanted: a strong Iraqi government. But it has not achieved what it really wanted, which was a strong, pro-American Iraqi government. Like Iran, the United States has been forced to settle for less than it originally aimed for, but more than most expected it could achieve in 2006.

This still leaves the question of what exactly the invasion of Iraq achieved. When the Americans invaded, they occupied what was clearly the most strategic country in the Middle East, bordering Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Syria, Turkey and Iran. Without resistance, the occupation would have provided the United States with a geopolitical platform from which to pressure and influence the region. The fact that there was resistance absorbed the United States, therefore negating the advantage. The United States was so busy hanging on in Iraq that it had no opportunity to take advantage of the terrain.

That is why the critical question for the United States is how many troops it can retain in Iraq, for how long and in what locations. This is a complex issue. From the Sunni standpoint, a continued U.S. presence is essential to protect Sunnis from the Shia. From the Shiite standpoint, the U.S. presence is needed to prevent Iran from overwhelming the Shia. From the standpoint of the Kurds, a U.S. presence guarantees Kurdish safety from everyone else. It is an oddity of history that no major faction in Iraq now wants a precipitous U.S. withdrawal — and some don’t want a withdrawal at all.

For the United States, the historical moment for its geopolitical coup seems to have passed. Had there been no resistance after the fall of Baghdad in 2003, the U.S. occupation of Iraq would have made Washington a colossus astride the region. But after five years of fighting, the United States is exhausted and has little appetite for power projection in the region. For all its bravado against Iran, no one has ever suggested an invasion, only airstrikes. Therefore, the continued occupation of Iraq simply doesn’t have the same effect as it did in 2003.

But the United States can’t simply leave. The Iraqi government is not all that stable, and other regional powers, particularly the Saudis, don’t want to see a U.S. withdrawal. The reason is simple: If the United States withdraws before the Baghdad government is cohesive enough, strong enough and inclined enough to balance Iranian power, Iran could still fill the partial vacuum of Iraq, thereby posing a threat to Saudi Arabia. With oil at more than $140 a barrel, this is not something the Saudis want to see, nor something the United States wants to see.

Internal Iraqi factions want the Americans to stay, and regional powers want the Americans to stay. The Iranians and pro-Iranian Iraqis are resigned to an ongoing presence, but they ultimately want the Americans to leave, sooner rather than later. Thus, the Americans won’t leave. The question now under negotiation is simply how many U.S. troops will remain, how long they will stay, where they will be based and what their mission will be. Given where the United States was in 2006, this is a remarkable evolution. The Americans have pulled something from the jaws of defeat, but what that something is and what they plan to do with it is not altogether clear.

Read the whole thing.

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