Like Afghanistan, Iraq’s ‘democracy’ could as easily unravel

Tallha Abdulrazaq

Baghdad relies heavily on American military and economic aid, and the fall of Kabul demonstrates the inherent instability of US client states.

It really did not take very long at all. When even some intelligence assessments were stating that Kabul could hold out against the Taliban’s inexorable advance for at least 90 days (itself a downward revision from the Biden administration’s original assessment that the US-backed regime could survive an American departure), the world watched on in awe as the Taliban defied all expectations and simply walked right into the Afghan capital, taking photographs from inside the now-abandoned presidential palace over the weekend. 

As easy as that, it was done. The American project in Afghanistan went out with the tiniest of whimpers, the mass carnage predicted by any Taliban return to power did not materialise, and Kabul was retaken relatively bloodlessly.

One can only imagine the shivers going down the spines of the Iraqi political elite, another American client regime, as they watch events in Afghanistan unfold as they sit huddled in the relative safety of Baghdad’s Green Zone.

Iraq almost fell to militants once before

By abandoning the Afghan government that they had spent two decades propping up, the United States signalled to all and sundry that it was an unreliable ally and not the kind of friend you would want when your back was up against the wall. The second Uncle Sam no longer perceived you to be of any benefit, you would be left to your fate should an enemy come knocking.

While some Iraqi commentators linked to the Baghdad regime have made imprudent comparisons between the Taliban’s advance and that of Daesh in 2014 (particularly foolish considering the Taliban are the main anti-Daesh force in Afghanistan since 2015), there is simply no truth to the claim that the Iraqis survived because they were somehow braver fighters than the formerly US-backed Afghan security forces.

Like the Afghan government, the Iraqi government is also heavily reliant on foreign powers. Similar to Afghanistan, it primarily relies upon the goodwill and continued economic and military aid of the United States. Different from Afghanistan, it also has another benefactor, namely Iran.

When Daesh (and other, often forgotten Iraqi nationalist factions) rolled up the Iraqi military across two-thirds of Iraq in 2014, the one thing that prevented the fall of Baghdad itself was foreign intervention from both a US-led global coalition and Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) under the command of the since-assassinated General Qasem Soleimani.

Once Shia Islam’s most senior cleric Ayatollah Sistani issued a decree calling on all able-bodied men to fight Daesh, it was the IRGC who organised the Shia militias into what is now known as the Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF) and led them into battle. The PMF fought alongside the discredited Iraqi military, but was crucially provided close air support by none other than the ‘Great Satan’ itself, the United States. It was this combination of efforts that saved Iraq.

Iraq’s near-total unravelling happened in a matter of months. From when the sectarian Shia prime minister of the day, Nouri al Maliki, had Sunni demonstrators violently killed and suppressed in the final days of 2013, by the summer of 2014 he had lost most of the country to armed militants and would have lost it all were it not for the intervention of both Iran and the US. 

It was precisely what Washington denied its client in Kabul that saved its client in Baghdad seven years earlier.

Client states are inherently unstable

This entire scenario could quite easily play out again, and Baghdad knows this. While it is certainly less susceptible to a total rout due to a determined Iranian suzerain that relies on Iraq’s continued subjugation to further its regional ambitions, Tehran is not as powerful as Washington. Should the White House decide that keeping Iraq propped up is simply not worth its time or massive expenditure anymore, Iran would have to find a way to take up the slack.

This will be a tall order. In terms of military assistance alone, Iraq receives some $3-4 billion annually and most of its more advanced equipment is all American-made — arms that Washington would be loath to simply allow Tehran free access to. The Afghan security forces were in a similar position, yet all their advanced arms and armour did not help them once the US decided to cut its apron strings because no one wanted to fight and die for a corrupt regime.

Also similar to the Afghan case is how corrupt the Iraqi regime is, and how totally bereft of legitimacy it really is. Iraq has consistently ranked as one of the most corrupt countries on Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index. Not only is business activity subject to paying off bent officials, but entire ministry budgets are controlled by wildly corrupt political parties who also control powerful militias, many of which target Iraqi protesters.

Such is the scale of public mistrust of the political elite that they repeatedly demonstrate against the regime. In the last elections of 2018 official figures state only 44.5 percent bothered to vote.

With elections looming in October this year, and with faith in the masquerade of democracy at an all-time low, we can expect a similarly dismal electoral performance with the same revolving door of profiteering politicians gaining control over various ministries, enriching their friends and impoverishing the Iraqi people. Nothing changes, except the level of mistrust Iraqis have for their politicians which plumbs ever deeper depths.

In such an environment, it would not be surprising to see something similar to what happened in Afghanistan or even South Vietnam decades earlier, happen in Iraq. South Vietnam crumbled a little more than two years after the US exited militarily from the Vietnam War, losing their capital amidst cries of American betrayal in 1975. 

At some point, Iraq will also be viewed as an economic and political liability, and the US will simply cut its losses and its ties to a political class who have only ever served themselves.

When that day comes, and it will, the best we can hope for is that those who force the Iraqi client regime out are those who truly represent the Iraqi people and their best interests. This will be one of the challenges faced by Iraqi civil society who are trying to organise politically in a repressive environment that encourages violent, underground groups to thrive while paying the barest lip service to the free will and sovereignty of the Iraqi people.

Leave a Comment