It wasn’t as ignominious a picture as US helicopters frantically taking off from the roof of the American embassy in Saigon — the iconic image of defeat from the Vietnam War. But the sight of the last convoy leaving Iraqi soil nevertheless imparted a feeling of inexplicable sadness; a realization that the sacrifices made by the military and their families over the previous decade may have been wasted because a president was more interested in fulfilling a political promise than in seeing the Iraq mission through to a more successful conclusion.
The Iraqi people, deeply ambivalent toward America’s role in the country, appear to have mixed feelings about the end of our military’s combat operations. While celebrating the end of the occupation, there are many Iraqis who also wish America had stayed a little longer to allow the country to get on its feet and resist the pressure coming from Syria, Saudi Arabia, and especially Iran. And not surprisingly, our soldiers leave with a sense of pride in their accomplishments, relief that they are getting out of a dangerous place alive, and insisting that their mission was worth it.
Underscoring the ambivalence of the Iraqi people toward our withdrawal are the words of this schoolteacher from the deeply divided city of Tikrit — Saddam’s hometown and a place where Shia and Sunni divisions can turn deadly:
The American departure represents a joyous event, but our concerns are about the time after the departure,” the Tikrit schoolteacher said. “Absolutely, after the American withdrawal the divisions between Sunnis and Shiites will get worse and worse.
But the American government has left Iraq in a lurch. Iraq’s government is incapable of functioning in a way that adequately addresses the basic needs of the people. The Iraqi military is barely able to maintain domestic security against an array of enemies, much less meet the challenge of a foreign invasion. And Iraqi society is as fractured and riven by sectarian divisions as it ever has been.
Could any of this have been fixed by our continued military presence? Not alone, of course. But the US mission in Iraq was a stabilizing influence that might eventually have allowed the factions to coalesce, and given the government the confidence to resist Iranian influence — a prospect that will now loom large in the next few years as Iran will ratchet up the pressure using its surrogates and militias to potentially dominate the weak national government.
The challenges facing Iraq without the American military to backstop efforts to create a functioning democracy appear almost insurmountable. Corruption is rampant. Violence, although much reduced, still affects the daily lives of all Iraqis. And the legacy of Saddam and his regime still hangs over the nation he brutalized for three decades. There is zero trust between Sunni and Shia in Iraq — a consequence of Saddam keeping the lid on sectarian divisions by simply eliminating those who tried to stir the religious pot. And the Shias, oppressed for years under the dictator’s Sunni regime, refuse to forgive the Sunnis and to this day, seek to freeze them out of the economic and social life of the country.
“These politicians will lead the country into sedition and civil war. Iraq now is like a weak prey among neighboring beasts,” said one Shia shop owner in the southern city of Basra. With the Americans leaving, there is little chance that situation will change for the better anytime soon. The Iraqi military, while fairly competent in going after domestic terrorists, is in no shape to face the challenge of a foreign military intervention.