On February 17, 2010, Defense Secretary Robert Gates approved in a memo to Central Command head David Petraeus the rebranding of the American mission in Iraq. He stressed that ‘Operation Iraqi Freedom,’ the US Military’s name for the 2003 invasion and seven-year occupation of that country, “has ended and our forces are operating under a new mission.” Six months later, on August 19, the last American ‘combat’ brigades crossed the Iraqi border into Kuwait, and twelve days after that―over seven years after President Bush made a similar announcement―President Obama announced “the end of our combat mission in Iraq.” As communists, we have a threefold responsibility to take up in response to this maneuver by the American bourgeoisie. First, we must relate this event to a broader analysis of the international situation. Second, we must examine the real intentions of the US bourgeoisie, the impression this announcement is meant to make in and outside the United States. Finally, a balance sheet for the war must be drawn up, both in terms of its effect on American imperialism, and in terms of how the proletariat has learned to respond to war.
US foreign policy in the post-Cold War era
The early years of the Iraq occupation were difficult ones for the American bourgeoisie. While the initial invasion showcased the ability of the American military to destroy its target state the American bourgeoisie’s real strategic objectives were not immediately accomplished. In the 1991 Gulf War, the American bourgeoisie’s main concern was to reinforce its control over an imperialist bloc whose secondary members had lost their reason for adhering to the US overlord following the collapse of the Eastern bloc and the reduced threat posed by Russia. Back then it was largely successful, drawing not only the NATO countries into the military intervention, but including even the collapsing USSR in the effort, via the UN sanctions. The following decade saw the strengthening of the tendency of ‘every man for himself’ at the level of imperialist tensions, with second and third rate powers increasingly emboldened to defend their own interests (ex-Yugoslavia, Middle East, Africa). The aim of the US in 1991 was thus to establish military control of strategically important zones in Asia and the Middle East that could be used to exert pressure on its rivals, large and small.
The 9/11 attacks provided an opportunity to launch the ‘war on terror’ and justify the first foray into Afghanistan in 2001, but the impetus didn’t last long. In 2003, the US was unable to mobilize its old coalition for the second effort in Iraq. France and Germany, in particular, while unable to marshal their own imperialist bloc, proved unwilling to simply follow the US, seeing the ‘war on terror’ precisely for what it was – an attempt by the US to reinforce its position as the dominant global superpower.
Real intentions of the US withdrawal from Iraq
In 2007 there was a noticeable shift in US strategy in Iraq in the face of several difficulties. First was a bloody counter-insurgency that eventually saw 4,400 US troops killed, 36,000 injured and over 100,000 Iraqi civilians dead (though some estimates put the figure at more than half a million – far above the ‘tens of thousands’ mentioned in the mainstream media). The war in Iraq was becoming a veritable quagmire and the mother of all PR disasters, given the non-existence of ‘Weapons of Mass Destruction’ used to justify the invasion. The ghost of Vietnam stalked the corridors of Washington. There was also the growing cost of the war: even Obama admits it has cost over a trillion dollars, contributing massively to the budget deficit and hampering the US economy’s ability to deal with the economic crisis. The resurgence of the Taliban in Afghanistan – expelled by US force in 2001, but not defeated – and the spread of terrorist attacks in Europe and Asia backed by elements based in the Afghanistan/Pakistan border region was another concern.
When Kerry, who focused on reassembling the old imperialist bloc, proved unelectable, America claimed supremacy in the region for itself. The bourgeoisie adopted this strategy, and its debate began to center around the troop numbers appropriate to such a goal. Rumsfeld clung to his project of a leaner, more automated military. The Democrats allied with certain elements on the right to support the ‘surge’ – a temporary deployment of more troops to Iraq to keep order, defend the fledgling ‘democracy’ and ensure the transition of military responsibility to Iraqi forces. This was the policy of Bush in his last years, and it is now the policy of Obama in Afghanistan.
The overall strategy adopted by the US bourgeoisie has remained essentially the same. While the Obama administration may put more emphasis on diplomacy, there is overall continuity with the previous administration. As Obama said in his speech of August 31, “...one of the lessons of our effort in Iraq is that American influence around the world is not a function of military force alone. We must use all elements of our power ― including our diplomacy, our economic strength, and the power of America’s example ― to secure our interests and stand by our allies... [T]he United States of America intends to sustain and strengthen our leadership in this young century...”
Balance sheet of the war in Iraq
Does the withdrawal of US forces from Iraq mean the world is now a safer place? Far from it! Defense Secretary Bob Gates was even more explicit than Obama: “Even with the end of the formal combat mission, the U.S. military will continue to support the Iraqi army and police, help to develop Iraq’s navy and air force, and assist with counterterrorism operations.”
Publically, the administration says it is broadly satisfied with the state of government and civil society in Iraq. However, Iraq now holds the record for the amount of time a modern nation state has gone without an effective government. The US still has to strengthen the Iraqi state by training more military and police. It is leaving fifty thousand ‘non-combat’ troops in Iraq for at least another year. These forces will allow it unrivalled domination over the Iraqi government - no other power has such a large force so near the centers of Iraqi power, or one that is so necessary for that power’s continued existence. There are similarities with the US approach in South Korea after World War 2, where 40,000 troops were stationed to maintain a presence in the region. Having military bases in modern-day Iraq – even on a much reduced scale – will ensure the US can maintain pressure on Iran and other regional powers.
We should be careful not to take the administration’s line too much at face value. In actual fact it is quite possible that Iraq will disintegrate when the US leaves, with all the different parties contributing to the break-up of the country, notably the Kurdish nationalists, or with it simply disintegrating into civil war. Similarly, the situation in Afghanistan is absolutely catastrophic and shows every sign of getting worse, with the disintegration of Pakistan and the war spreading there as well.
Despite its setbacks, the American bourgeoisie, has at least internalized the fact that it exists in a world of each against all, and has learned some valuable lessons on how to wage war and conduct occupation today. The withdrawal of troops from Iraq does not mean the end of war. On the one hand, American troops will have a continuing presence in the country, and the United States, Turkey, Israel, Russia, Iran, and Germany will go on playing their games for imperial influence in the region just as before. On the other, the US will now be more able to focus its efforts on Afghanistan, and will have freed up some capacity to intervene elsewhere in the world. The end of the Iraq War, in the hands of imperialism, is really the continuation of war where it is already raging, and the beginning of war elsewhere. Imperialism’s logical end is the destruction of humanity. In the face of this, humanity’s defender is the proletariat, the bearer of communism.