The United States rehearsed its disastrous 2021 withdrawal from Afghanistan when it pulled all forces from Iraq in 2011, according Entifadh Qanbar. Qanbar told a Jewish Policy Center webinar January 4 that U.S. officials “were aware” of an internal Iraqi defense ministry report indicating that Baghdad’s own forces stood at only 25 percent readiness on the eve of the pullout.
He served as national security advisor to then Deputy Prime Minister Ahmad Chalabi after working in 2003 as liaison to the U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) in the Middle East. Qanbar observed that when people say Washington did not expect the “mayhem” that accompanied withdrawal of the remaining GIs from Kabul three years ago, “it already happened in 2011” in Iraq. He noted that Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin was the commanding general of U.S. Middle East forces at the time, and President Joe Biden was then vice president under Barack Obama.
American policy toward Iraq has not been in the U.S. national security interest under either recent Democratic or Republican administrations, Qanbar said, though “to a larger extent with Democrats.” Washington’s fixation on “stability” in Iraq is at fault, he maintained. Chronically seeking “a strongman” to replace Saddam Hussein in forcing the country’s factions together, rather than upholding the country’s post-Saddam constitution, which enshrines regional federalism, U.S. officials end up touting prime ministers influenced by Iran and accepting Iranian-dominated militia.
After U.S.-led forces ousted the dictatorial Saddam in 2003, “we put federalism in the constitution as the solution,” said Qanbar, one of the document’s co-authors. Written with American assistance, it granted Kurds in the oil-rich northeast, plurality Shi’ite Muslim Arabs in the south and Sunnis in the center and west, plus other minorities, opportunity for regional autonomy while aiming to diminish sectarian and ethnic strife.
But given Washington’s chronic search for a strongman, “the U.S. embassy becomes a rubber stamp for whatever the prime minister does,” Qanbar said. “Iran,” which “opposed the constitution from day one … figured this out” and passed its demands through the prime minister’s office.
America repeatedly demanded concessions from the Kurds, the United States’ “only real allies” in Iraq, according to Qanbar, while prime ministers cycling through the office became “stooges of Iran or corrupt, or both.” Washinton’s lack of a national security policy toward the country meant, for example, that arms for the Kurds’ Pesh Murga militia went through Baghdad, which keep them.
Iran’s influence, personified by Qassem Soleimani, leader of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps al-Quds foreign operations force, grew. At one point Soleimani—assassinated by the United States at the order of President Donald Trump in 2020—“was in Kirkuk leading the invasion by Shi’a militia” of the Kurdish oil capital. Officials at the State Department and elsewhere “didn’t believe me,” Qanbar said. A naturalized U.S. citizen in 1999 and founder of the Kurdish Protection Action Committee, he views “U.S. policy of stability at the expense of American national interests” as one of the major problems in Iraq.
The United States and Israel ought to study Iranian maneuvers in the recent Azerbaijan-Armenia war, Qanbar said. Why would Shi’a Iran side with Christian Armenia against Muslim Azerbaijan? “The answer is 2,000 miles away” in Lebanon.
That country’s small Armenian minority “plays a huge role in making Hezbollah more lethal,” he said. Hezbollah (Party of God) is the Iranian-backed Shi’a terrorist militia and political movement that dominates the Lebanese. So, “for the first time since ancient history, Iran … has an arm on the Mediterranean.”
The Middle East is not split between Sunni and Shi’a Muslims so much as it is divided “between pro-American, or neutral countries” that also lean toward or are neutral regarding Israel, and anti-American nations and movements, Qanbar said. “Israel is a forward base to fight terrorism. … The United States must support Israel,” he stressed. “If it loses, God forbid … the terrorism will come to the United States.”
T0 defeat Middle Eastern terrorism, much of it—including Hezbollah, Hamas, Yemen’s Houthis and militia in Iraq and Syria—supported and controlled by Iran, the West “must terrorize the terrorists,” said Qanbar.
Ex post facto longing for Saddam Hussein, however brutal, as a counterbalance to Iran and source of Iraqi stability, is mistaken, he stressed. After 1990, “Saddam handed the Iraqi air force to Iran” and participated in “massive” oil smuggling with Tehran. “No matter how much some people in the Middle East hate each other … they will find a way to work together against the United States.”
Yet Washington has “no functional national security policy in the Middle East,” Qanbar charged. He cited the Biden administration’s lifting of Trump-era economic sanctions, thereby allowing more money into Iran, and United States’ failure to support populist movements that periodically rise against Iranian-backed regimes, as in Iraq in 2019 or Iran itself three years later.
“Money is more important in the Middle East than any ideology. … There is no consistency in the United States,” he said. “As a great country, we can’t continue this policy.” Washinton should be helping Israel, the Kurds and the Saudis stand up to Iran, Qanbar stated.