The U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan and subsequent Taliban take over has captured the attention of people around the world. Perhaps nobody is watching with the attentiveness of those in Iraq.
The U.S. drawdown in Afghanistan created a security vacuum, which allowed the Taliban to rapidly take over the country in a matter of days. U.S. intelligence reports drastically underestimated the Taliban’s capability, but more importantly, they overestimated the ability of Afghan forces to defend against them. Initial intelligence assessments indicated that it would take the Taliban at least three months to arrive at the gates of Kabul. The reality was that it would take them less than two weeks to assert control of the country. Assessments listed the Afghan Army as having a strength of over 300,000 personnel. However, the BBC reported last week that insider knowledge listed the army’s true strength at about 50,000 strong. These factors alone indicate that the work the U.S. carried out over the last two decades didn’t achieve the desired outcome.
A similar story can be painted in Iraq in June 2014, when the Islamic State insurgency captured the northern third of Iraq. The Iraqi military had been receiving training and support from U.S. forces and the U.S. was in the process of drawing down troop numbers in Iraq before the rise of ISIS. In reality, the situation was that Iraqi forces were drastically underprepared to fight the Islamic state on their own, and required U.S. troops to be redeployed in support. Iraqi government forces fled the area shortly into the ISIS offensive and left the area under control of the regional Kurdish government.
Between the fall of Afghanistan and the all too recent situation in Iraq, it is easy to see why Iraqis are worried about the future of their country. The Iraqi government is known to be an unstable institution at best and downright corrupt at worst. For example, the U.S. has been dismayed in the past at the lack of political will to confront militia groups. Bilal Wahab writing for Foreign Policy Magazine went so far as to claim “the Iraqi government and military are unwilling to stand up to unruly militias threatening Iraq’s sovereignty and stability.” This is particularly evident in counterterrorism. The Iraqi government has been happy to deploy forces against the Islamic State, but not to counter Shia militant groups that are prevalent throughout the country.
Unlike Afghanistan, however, Iraq has proven to have somewhat more resilient government institutions, and there is no shared identity or national consensus between Iraqi militias like there is among the Taliban in Afghanistan. Additionally, the U.S. is concerned about Iranian influence in the region, and therefore unlikely to completely withdraw like they did in Afghanistan. Still, the current administration is scheduled to end their deployment to Iraq by the end of 2021.
Will all eyes shift from Afghanistan to Iraq next year?