US soldier on patrol in Mosul Iraq, "This is like a gang war, and we are the biggest gang."The US has fully abdicated any attempt at winning in Iraq under any meaningful victory conditions. That route is forfeit, as operations wind down (particularly in Anbar), funding for reconstruction evaporates (Bechtel's departure from Iraq marked the end of the effort), and efforts to rebuild the Iraqi military continue to fail (due to a deficit of loyalty to the government). Despite this, withdrawal from Iraq doesn't appear to be an option. The reason for this is simple and doesn't include shame or a loss of power. It's more basic. It's OIL. Iraq is a core producer of oil for global markets. Control of this oil cannot be ceded to either the guerrillas or Iran under any meaningful current interpretation of US policy. Further, a full US withdrawal would put Saudi Arabia at risk -- the collapse of both of these oil producers in tandem would plunge the global economy into a depression. As a result, the US will inevitably decide to stay. The US political establishment seems to have already defaulted to this decision, as seen by the complete lack of any substantive political discussion about actually leaving Iraq. The most we will likely see is a substantial reduction in troops to take the stress off of the army and assuage critics.
However, a decision to stay isn't a strategy. Given the inability of the current leadership to generate an alternative, the likely default strategy that might be adopted is the the role of the spoiler. This strategy is dedicated to merely preventing any antagonistic regional powers (Iran and Syria) or internal factions from toppling the hollow shell of the Iraqi government. Actions necessary for this role include, an ability to pummel (typically with air power and rapid reaction forces) any groups engaged in open warfare, and an ability to defend the borders. At all other times, US forces will be tightly sealed within their bases to prevent casualties. The problems with this strategy are manifold:
- Moral damage. US moral cohesion will collapse if casualties continue to mount. At minimum, the US political establishment will suffer a substantial loss in legitimacy (both parties) -- particularly since neither will square with the American people on the real reason we continue to stay in Iraq: OIL. Also, the perception of the US globally will continue to slide.
- Operational risk. Both open source movements (Sunni and Shiite) may focus their violence on the US. This situation puts the US against all of the factions with only the shell of the Iraqi government to back it up. This scenario gets worse if these forces (with Iranian support) can cut the supply lines to US forces.
- Expansion of the conflict. The entire strategy collapses if the war spreads to Iran or Saudi Arabia. By perpetuating the status quo, the US may be inadvertently contributing to the spread. Also, given the demonstration of Iraq, it's very likely that both Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf monarchies would rather fall than ask the US in to help.
ED NOTE: In an unusual step, I have revised this brief several times since I published it. The original front section is now its own brief. Sorry for the confusion. I should be done now.