Eleven years ago, the U.S. military installed a Shiite-majority puppet government in Baghdad. The cost of regime change in Iraq has been estimated at between $2 trillion and $6 trillion. Nearly 4,500 U.S. soldiers were killed. Tens of thousands were wounded. At least one million Iraqis died.
You could think of the U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq as the most expensive startup of all time, a high-risk experiment, but with real human lives at stake.
The neoconservatives who thought up the war during the 1990s hoped to create an island of American-style neoliberalism in the Middle East that would spread throughout the region. The risks were high, the chances long.
Today the American experiment in Iraq appears to be coming to a disastrous conclusion.
Taking both the U.S.-backed regime, led by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, and the Obama Administration by surprise, the Al Qaeda-affiliated Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) may be days away from capturing Baghdad and establishing the harsh fundamentalist brand of Sharia-based Islamic governance familiar to Afghans who lived under the Taliban (and those in the rural areas of Afghanistan who still do).
Today’s Washington Post reports:
Iraq was on the brink of disintegration Thursday as al-Qaeda-inspired fighters swept through northern Iraq toward Baghdad and Kurdish soldiers seized the city of Kirkuk without a fight.
Lawmakers gathered at the Iraqi parliament to discuss the declaration of a state of emergency, a day after Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki assured Iraqis that the insurgents’ gains were temporary and would soon be reversed by the Iraqi army.
But after the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) captured fresh territory and set its sights on Baghdad, Iraq seemed to be fast slipping out of government control.
The White House has so far refused requests from the Maliki regime to use drones or otherwise provide military assistance.
If it comes — which currently seems likely — the collapse of the Maliki government will stand as a devastating historical rebuke of U.S. interventionism. It will be impossible for even those on America’s far Right to argue that the Iraq War wasn’t a colossal waste of blood and treasure. Worst of all, every American should have seen this coming ages ago.
Governments installed by a superpower’s invading armies have a lousy track record of survival after military withdrawal. The pro-Soviet government of Afghanistan only lasted five years before the country disintegrated into a civil war which arguably continues today. The South Vietnamese regime in Saigon hung around a couple of years after the Paris peace talks. It doesn’t take a genius to see that rulers installed at the point of a gun, usually in defiance of the demographic and political realities “on the ground,” as Americans say, will succumb to those inherent weaknesses after foreign money and arms leave the scene.
The Maliki collapse follows the pattern. But the Baghdad government faces not only the loss of American backers, most of whom withdrew in 2011, but also the factor of neighboring Syria, destabilized by a U.S.-supported radical Islamist insurgency that seeks to Talibanize that secular socialist autocracy.
Watch this story closely. It’s a preview of Afghanistan in 2016 or so. The post-Karzai government is too poorly funded, unpopular, and ungrounded in indigenous political reality to survive the imminent U.S. withdrawal for more than a few years. In Kabul as well, we are likely to see a repeat of the not-so-best-laid plans of imperialists collapse in front of our eyes.
[illustration by Brad Jonas for Pando]