There was a time when people thought that the United States would not withdraw from Iraq and abandon the country that it had invaded to topple an entrenched and autocratic regime and allegedly build a modern state that could eventually join the club of secular democracies.
And there was a time, too, just a few years later, when scepticism greeted the idea that Washington would curtail the US military presence in Iraq after the administration of former president George W Bush finalised a pact with Baghdad that set out a path for the US withdrawal.
In both cases, doubters said that Washington would not really exit from Iraq after nearly a decade of costly intervention, even if some American politicians were eager to leave the messy conflict that had started with the 2003 US-led invasion.
Sceptics who always doubted Washington’s commitment to pull out from Iraq now look at the increasing US military and diplomatic involvement in the beleaguered nation as a clear “I told you so” moment in US Iraqi policy.
Despite a troop pull-out in 2011, the US left behind a small contingent of marines and a large army of private contractors that was estimated at 7,000 security personnel under the control of the US Embassy in Baghdad, the largest in the world.
For many experts, the continued US presence in Iraq under the comprehensive Status of Forces Agreement reached with the Bush administration was simply camouflage for leaving enough resources in the country to stay on and to protect American foreign policy interests in the region.
However, the rise of the Islamic State (IS) terror group and its seizure of huge chunks of territory in Iraq in summer 2014 brought an opportunity for a build-up.
The Obama administration dispatched thousands of US troops to Iraq under the umbrella of the International Coalition to fight IS.
Today, US President Donald Trump, who sharply criticised the Obama-era policies in Iraq during his campaign in 2016, has not fundamentally deviated from the policies of his two predecessors.
Since Trump came into office, US troop numbers have been edging up in Iraq, with consistent reports saying that his administration is planning an open-ended mission in the country for US forces beyond fighting IS.
Today, there may be some 9,000 US troops in Iraq, which Washington says it needs to maintain the gains made in the war against IS as the latter’s militants remain operational in many parts of Iraq.
For many experts, however, the US forces in Iraq are becoming an “enduring presence” in the country as Washington expands its military and builds new “permanent” bases in the country.
Last week, a spokesman for the US-led International Coalition fighting the militants, Sean Ryan, told a news conference in Abu Dhabi that US forces would stay in Iraq “as long as needed” to help stabilise regions previously controlled by IS.
Working in conjunction with the United States, NATO is also deploying more troops to help in what several NATO countries say are “stabilisation efforts” in post-IS Iraq.
In a further sign of the increasing importance being attached to Iraq, the Pentagon has also sounded the alarm about the sharp drop in admissions to the United States of Iraqi refugees who have helped American troops in Iraq.
US officials told Reuters last week that the Pentagon was concerned that not providing safe havens for thousands of Iraqis who have collaborated with the Americans and carried out key tasks for US forces was putting the lives of Iraqis who work for the US government or American companies in danger from armed militias opposed to the United States.
The officials told the news agency that the Pentagon believed the drop in Iraqi refugees coming to the United States would harm US national security by dissuading Iraqis from cooperating with the United States in Iraq.
Underscoring the importance that US military officials give to the admission to the United States of Iraqi refugees, the Pentagon suggested during a White House meeting last week that it would lend staff to the FBI to help it process Iraqi asylum-seekers in the US faster.
Though security concerns seem to be behind the offer, the strategic objective behind the plan to bring Iraqi collaborators into the United States must be more far-reaching.
Among other things, Iraqi immigrants to the United States can play an important role in advancing the US agenda in Iraq.
At the end of July, more than 100,000 Iraqis had applied to the special refugee programme meant for people who had worked for the US government or American contractors, news media or non-governmental groups in Iraq.
Most importantly, the United States has recently intensified its diplomatic efforts in Iraq amid a political crisis in the country following inconclusive parliamentary elections in May.
The endeavour to influence the formation of the next Iraqi government must be part of the larger strategy that keeps America fully engaged in Iraq and warrants growing US interests in the country from a regional and global strategic perspective.
In this regard, US special presidential envoy in Iraq Brett McGurk and Ambassador Douglas Silliman have been meeting with high-level Iraqi politicians to try to mediate an end to the standoff.
The stepped-up US diplomacy is aimed to counter similar efforts by Iran’s point man in Iraq, Al-Quds Force commander Qassem Suleimani, who also has reportedly been in Baghdad to put pressure on political groups denying Iraqi Prime Minister Haider Al-Abadi a second term.
The United States is clearly rooting for a second term for Al-Abadi, described by the American media as being against Iran’s proxies in Iraq and more friendly to Washington and its regional Arab allies than other candidates.
Washington has interfered before after deadlocked elections in Iraq by putting pressure on the political groups to find a new prime minister, but its backing of Al-Abadi this time round marks a watershed moment in its post-invasion relations with Iraq.
US officials have so far refrained from publicly endorsing Al-Abadi, but the US media and Washington’s experts on Iraq have been hailing Al-Abadi as the kind of pragmatic leader Iraq needs to clean up the quagmire in the country.
They also depict Al-Abadi as the Iraqi pro-Western leader America needs to advance its interests in an Iraq that remains a strategic ally of the United States.
Among the traits that American pundits are heaping on Al-Abadi are his ability to finally unite a fractious nation and being strong enough to pull Iraq back from the brink.
However, the main reason behind pushing Al-Abadi into power remains the conviction by Washington’s policy-makers that he could be a reliable partner in Trump’s policy of rolling back Iran’s influence in Iraq and confronting its proxies.
In order to do this, the American agenda in Iraq is being framed to make Washington line up behind Al-Abadi as Iraq moves towards forming a new government following the 12 May elections.
The US strategy seems to be predicated on one key principle: dividing the Iraqi Shia political groups on pro- and anti-Iran lines, while pushing the country’s Kurds and Sunnis to join the latter camp, presumably headed by Al-Abadi.
Apart from being simplistic and naïve, the problem with this approach is that it is counter-productive and could trigger a Shia-Shia schism that would plunge Iraq into a long and bloody stalemate.
America’s post-invasion influence in Iraq vis-à-vis Iran’s surging leverage in the country has been tested by numerous challenges since 2003, and on every front the overall success rate has been staggeringly bad.
Indeed, Washington has been losing its status as the hegemonic power in the country, and Iran has been using this failure to gain more ground in Iraq, with Tehran’s rise also fuelling a more robust stance on regional affairs.
The United States must realise that it has been reaping what it has sown in Iraq when it replaced Saddam Hussein’s dictatorship with a sectarian and ethnic kleptocracy that has been plundering Iraq’s wealth and using its power to exploit the country’s people and natural resources in order to extend its power and increase its wealth.
Ironically, those in power in Iraq owe a lot of their positions to Iran, which has exploited Washington’s mistakes and the Shia sense of insecurity to help them establish themselves as the principal forces of order and patronage in post-Saddam Iraq.
Meddling in this equation without a proper alternative would be a dangerous game, and it could be a catastrophic one for the whole Middle East and Gulf region.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 30 August 2018 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: The puzzle of the US agenda in Iraq