In 2011, President Obama withdrew most of the remaining American troops from Iraq. In 2014, the Islamic State began a rampage that blazed through the crucial Iraqi city of Mosul and much of the Sunni heartland before stopping just shy of Baghdad.
Many hawkish critics have since argued that the second episode never would have happened without the first. They have a point: an American military presence certainly could have blunted ISIS’s blitzkrieg. But the fact remains that Iraq is ultimately a failure not of military prowess, but of institutional control. The United States attempted to rebuild that nation and the results have been found lacking.
Start with Iraqi politics, which is a frothing cauldron of sectarianism, corruption, and dysfunction. To his credit, Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi has been trying to replace his graft-infested cabinet with a more neutral and qualified team of experts, but he’s repeatedly been blocked by the Iraqi parliament.
That gridlock has flooded the Green Zone with protesters—over the weekend, demonstrators actually stormed and ransacked the parliament building. Iraqis are furious over the government’s endless graft and inability to provide even basic services, both of which have been thrown into a sharper light by the recent plunge in oil revenues. Fomenting the unrest is Moqtada al-Sadr, a Shiite cleric whose Mahdi Army attacked American soldiers during the initial war. Thus has Iraq found itself in an unsettled position where the extreme Sadr is a kingmaker and the sober Abadi may see his government implode.
Iraq’s woes aren’t limited to its legislative branch. The military, though in possession of some fresh gumption after it was widely denounced following ISIS’s takeover, is still struggling to claw its way towards Mosul. Much of its success has come courtesy of pro-Iranian militias and it’s still heavily dependent on American assistance. General Ziryan Shekhwasani of the Kurdish peshmerga, which is also fighting ISIS, put it this way: “If we had their weapons and equipment, we would have taken the countryside of Mosul in three days.”
Meanwhile, the oil ministry is rife with corruption. Vast swaths of the country don’t have access to electricity or potable drinking water. Doctors are fleeing thanks to sustained threats of violence. Transparency.org ranks Iraq the seventh-most corrupt country in the world, tied with failed state Libya and dirtier even than Bashar al-Assad’s cult of personality in Syria.
Without a civil society and strong institutions, a void opened that’s been filled by militias and security details. This problem has both horizontal and vertical dimensions. Horizontally, Iraq’s militias clash with each other, carry their respective torches of sectarianism, and promise to keep the peace. This has had the inevitable effect of further fracturing Iraq down ethnic and even tribal lines at a time when what’s needed is unity against the Islamic State.
The vertical dimension starts with the nation’s elites, who move money down to their favored militias and patrons. It’s nourished by the Green Zone, once a safe space for American personnel during the occupation, now a gated community for the Iraqi ruling class that keeps it disconnected from the people it governs. “Iraqi elites took [the Green Zone] over after the Americans left, spending public money on their mansions, generators, cars, security details, homes overseas and payouts to cronies,” writes Emma Sky, former political advisor to General Ray Odierno. “Iraq’s political elites,” she adds, “live in splendid isolation.” (Imagine Nerd Prom, but more corrupt and less annoying.)
So today there are two Iraqs, one impoverished and blistered by violence, the other cosseted and feeding the violence with its crookedness. Hawks say the solution is to send back the American military, but the pre-2011 troop presence didn’t stop Iraq’s politics from degenerating, or its ministries from being doled out, or former prime minister Nouri al-Maliki from ethnically cleansing Baghdad. Why should more boots on the ground make the difference this time? American soldiers are trained to prosecute wars, not bureaucrats.
Others have suggested solving the problem of two Iraqs by creating three Iraqs, one each for the Sunnis, Shias, and Kurds. Such a partition would pose a litany of challenges—would Turkey ever assent to a Kurdish state? Would Sunnis ever cede Baghdad to the Shias?—but it’s also worth stepping back and asking another question. America spent $2 trillion liberating and rebuilding Iraq. Given the current chaos, was that really money well spent?