Will the defeat of IS in Iraq be a foreign policy victory for Donald Trump? With the fall of Mosul imminent, what happens next?
There will be winners, like the Kurds. There will be losers, like Iraq’s Sunni minority. There will be gains for Iran, which backs the Shi’ite militias drafted to fight Sunni-dominated IS. And there may be a silver lining for the Trump administration -- specifically in the form of Kurdish independence and permanent American bases in a Shi’ite-ruled Iraq.
But any declaration of “victory” on the part of the US depends on how the measure of those results is taken.
Start with the Kurds
Their military forces currently control a swath of northern territory, including the oil-rich province of Kirkuk.
The area has been a functional confederacy since soon after the American invasion in 2003 and, in spite of likely opposition from Baghdad, a fully-realised nation-state of Kurdistan seems inevitable.
The Kurds certainly think so -- they’ll hold an independence referendum on September 25.
Previous US administrations restrained Kurdish ambitions, trying to keep “Iraq” more or less as it was within its 2003 borders. George W Bush, and to a lesser extent Barack Obama, wished for a unified Iraq as a symbol, the conclusion of the invasion narrative of eliminating Saddam Hussein and establishing a new semi-secular ally in the heart of the Middle East.
A unified Iraq that enveloped the Kurds was also sought by NATO ally Turkey, which feared an independent Kurdish state on its disputed eastern border.
A new president arrives
The Trump White House appears less anguished about Kurdish independence. Trump is, for the first time, for example, overtly arming pro-Kurdish independence militias -- whom the Turks call terrorists -- to take on IS.
Washington doesn’t seem to have a plan for disarming the militias before they start fighting for control of disputed ancestral Kurdish lands held by Turkey.
So the key question has become not if the Kurds will announce some sort of statehood, but whether the Kurds will go to war with Turkey to round out their territorial claims in the process.
The US, with the ties that previously bound Washington and Ankara weakened following Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s authoritarian crackdown, might just be ready to stand aside and allow Kurdish ambitions to play out.
The Kurds are respected in American conservative circles important to Trump, and the Turks have fewer friends than ever there. Kurdish oil will be welcome to Washington, and the Kurds have always championed close security ties with the US. A strong US-Kurd alliance will also help Trump keep Iran in check.
America seeks bases as a symbol of some sort of victory, as a bulwark against whatever happens in Syria
Meanwhile, an Obama-era marriage of practicality which brought Shia militias into the fight against IS will not play out as well for Trump.
Any reluctance on the part of the US to act as a restraining force on the Iraqi central government’s empowering of Shia militias disappeared in 2014. As the Iraqi National Army collapsed in front of IS, the crisis demanded battle-ready forces, and the militias were the only option available outside of Kurdish-controlled areas.
Iran’s seat at the table
The problem for America is that many of those Shia militias owe significant allegiance to Iran, which helps arm them and supplements their efforts with special forces and leadership. Unlike the post-invasion years of about 2006 forward, when the US and Iran fought a shadow war for control inside Iraq, America has had to accept that it needs the militias to defeat IS.
Time will tell what Iran will do with its influence in Iraq. But there is certainly nothing for the White House to celebrate in seeing Iranian boots on the same ground where Americans died to hold territory.
Or with having to deal with a Baghdad government beholden to Tehran and its Shia militias.
In the Sunni parts of Iraq, there is no real win for the Trump administration. The fight against IS is destroying Mosul, and has already devastated Sunni cities like Ramadi and Fallujah. Neither Washington nor Baghdad has any realistic plans to rebuild.
Yet, despite a tangential win alongside the Kurds, and with clear losses vis-a-vis the Shia and Sunnis, there is perhaps a real silver lining in Iraq for Trump: Permanent American military bases.
Military bases for the win
Post-IS, Iraq will be a Shia nation with close ties to Iran.
The price Iraq and Iran will be forced to pay for America’s reluctant pragmatism over this will likely be small but permanent American military bases inside Iraq, mostly out of sight in the far west, (you won’t laugh if you remember that the US maintained its base at Guantanamo even after it severed ties with Soviet-dominated Cuba).
Trump is unlikely to give up bases in a rush to declare victory in Iraq, as did his predecessors, and has several thousand American troops already in place to back up his plans.
America seeks bases as a symbol of some sort of victory, a way to block any politically-ugly Shia reprisals against the Sunnis, and as a bulwark against whatever happens in Syria.
In addition, Israel is likely to near-demand the US garrison western Iraq as a buffer against expanding Iranian power.
Sealing the deal is that Iran will have little to gain from a fight over some desert estate that it would probably lose anyway, when their prize is the rest of Iraq.
Those bases even might, at America’s expense, keep any Sunni successors to IS from moving into Iraq -- as happened after al-Qaeda outstayed its welcome.
While the fight against IS in Iraq isn’t over, an ending of sorts is clear enough to allow for some reasonable predictions.
But, whatever happens will leave an unanswered, and sadly, perhaps, unasked question: Was the outcome worth to Americans the cost of some 4,500 dead, and the trillions of tax-payer dollars spent, over the last 14 years?
Peter Van Buren is a 24 year veteran of the State Department and the author of Hooper’s War: A Novel of WWII Japan. This article first appeared on Reuters.