In the September/October 2008 issue of Foreign Affairs Stephen Biddle of the Council on Foreign Relations, and Michael O’Hanlon and Kenneth Pollack of the Brookings Institution wrote a piece entitled “How to Leave a Stable Iraq, Building on Progress.” As reported earlier, all three went on a tour of Iraq this summer. Stephen Biddle is a military expert and former advisor to General David Petraeus. Michael O’Hanlon is a national security expert, while Kenneth Pollack is a senior fellow at the Saban Center for Middle East Policy. Their main point is that while Iraq has a new status quo characterized by less violence, American forces are still going to be needed for years to come because a new set of issues is facing the country.
First they attempt to sketch the new situation in Iraq. Violence is down 80%, sectarian violence is down 90%. U.S. deaths are down to the lowest since the invasion. That doesn’t mean there isn’t fighting and deaths still going on in Iraq, but it is nowhere near the levels of the sectarian war of 2006. Many Americans have set their image of the country during this earlier time, and have not recognized that the sectarian war is now over.
There are several factors that have produced this new status quo. One, the majority of Sunnis have turned against the insurgency. This was caused by the Sunnis tiring of the harsh tactics of Al Qaeda in Iraq, and losing the sectarian war to the Shiites, which the Islamists started. The increase in troops during the Surge allowed Sunnis to turn to the U.S. for protection. The change in tactics by American forces to protect the population also facilitated this transformation. Today, most of the Sunnis and the insurgency has agreed to a cease-fire with the U.S. and operate in the Sons of Iraq program. This allowed the U.S. to push Al Qaeda in Iraq out of most of western and central Iraq. The standing down by the Sunnis, also had an affect on the Shiites. They did not need Moqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army anymore with the sectarian war ended. Sadr’s militia also began splintering, the Shiites grew to resent the extortion and exploitation that the Sadrists used to fund their operations, and the increased U.S. troops led to more military operations against the Mahdi. Together these led to Sadr’s cease-fire. By the middle of 2007, these changes had decreased the incentives for fighting and a series of local cease-fires, which in turn led to the drop in deaths and violence that you see today in Iraq. This is a point that Biddle has been writing about since at least late 2007. Since then, Sadr’s extended stay in Iran, and the 2008 government crackdowns on his movement, have also dealt him severe blows, and reduced violence
The last major change has been the growth of the Iraqi security forces. The Iraqi Army and police have had a huge surge in recruits recently. The Defense Ministry is actively recruiting former soldiers from Saddam’s era, and vetting the officer corps. Their capabilities have also increased as 55% of Iraqi Army units are now considered in the top two tiers of readiness by the U.S. The National Police, a paramilitary organization, have been thoroughly reformed. The decrease in sectarian fighting has also reduced outside pressures on the forces. American advisors and training have also expanded. One group that Biddle, O’Hanlon and Pollack don’t mention are the regular police, which are still considered under control of local political and sectarian actors and nowhere near the levels of readiness as other parts of the security force. While mentioning their advances, the three also believe that the Iraqi forces are not able to operate independently yet. They still need U.S. help with planning, supply, and fire and air support.
They also argue that the drop in fighting was not due to ethnic cleansing, a popular theory today. The article doesn’t do a good job of describing it, but again, this is something that Biddle has been arguing for quite some time. Basically, he believes that ethnic cleansing goes from neighborhood to neighborhood until only one group is dominant. In Baghdad however, there are still mixed areas and Sunni majority enclaves. If the ethnic cleansing idea was true, there should still be violence as militants fight for control of these remaining neighborhoods, but there isn’t. This is where Biddle’s cease-fire argument comes in to explain the end of the sectarian war.
The reduction in violence has moved many of Iraq’s struggles to the political field. There are still many problems with Iraq’s politicians including rivalries and a bad record of actually governing. Many ruling parties are now trying to improve services to gain popular support, something they hadn’t done before. Iraq’s parliament has also passed a number of laws since 2007 including a budget, a new deBaathification process, an amnesty law, and a provincial powers act. Reconciliation however, is still moving at a very slow pace. Provincial elections are the next big event, but Biddle, O’Hanlon, and Pollack warn that voting has had mixed results in Iraq, and doesn’t necessarily mean positive results. Overall, they believe that reconciliation will be a very long and arduous process.
Biddle, Pollack and O’Hanlon also highlight a number of other issues, which they call “second-tier,” that now need to be addressed with a new status quo. One is that the Sons of Iraq need to be integrated by the government, but Maliki has been reluctant to give anything to the Sunnis. Iraq’s four million plus refugees also need to return. Most won’t be able to go back to their original homes, so the government needs to set up a resettlement program for them. Their peaceful return is important to stop the re-emergence of militias that might paint themselves as the refugees’ protectors. The government also needs to improve its ability to provide basic services and spend its budget. Other issues are resolving the Kirkuk dispute, passing a new oil law, monitoring Iran’s activities, and trying to stop Iraq from becoming like other Arab countries that are noted for coups and an oligarchy monopolizing all the power and natural wealth.
The Council on Foreign Relations and Brookings’ experts end by making their argument for a long-term commitment by the U.S. in Iraq. They believe large numbers of American troops should be kept in Iraq until provincial and parliamentary elections are held. They don’t think that troops should be pulled out until at least 2010 if the voting goes well. American forces could be cut in half by 2011 if they do. America also needs to stay to maintain the cease-fires they have made with the Sunnis, to force the government to integrate the Sons of Iraq, and to oversee reconciliation. They argue against those that think a withdrawal will make Iraq take these steps sooner by saying that Iraq is changing without a troop pull out. It might also lead to hasty deals by Iraqi politicians that may not stand. What they do believe is that the U.S. needs to make continued U.S. support conditional, something the Bush administration has never asked for. Any part of U.S. policy in Iraq can be made conditional, not just a withdrawal they point out. In the end, they say Iraq may end up like Bosnia and Kosovo where U.S. troops have been gradually reduced, but they are still needed there as peacekeepers.
A year ago in August 2007, Anthony Cordesman, a Middle East military expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, wrote about needing “strategic patience” in Iraq. That’s what Biddle, O’Hanlon, and Pollack are calling for in “How to Leave a Stable Iraq, Building on Progress.” They join a growing number of others that have argued that now that the Surge has succeeded in reducing the level of violence in Iraq, it is no time to pull out. Rather, Iraq is still a fragile state that needs U.S. assistance to resolve its internal and external problems. An issue not address in their paper however, is that this is not a unilateral decision. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is becoming more and more confident, some say overconfident, in the government’s ability to secure the nation. Baghdad has also increased its budget for reconstruction and has launched a program to return all of the country’s refugees this summer. Biddle, O’Hanlon, Pollack, and others may want large numbers of troops to stay for the next couple years, but the U.S. may not be able to because of demands by Iraqi politicians. As Iraq becomes more secure, it also means that its politicians will become more assertive, and look less to the U.S. for guidance and support. That’s playing out today in the on-going negotiations over security and diplomatic deals between the two countries, as Iraq is calling for more autonomy.
Biddle, Stephen, O’Hanlon, Michael, and Pollack, Kenneth, “How to Leave a Stable Iraq, Building on Progress in Iraq,” Foreign Affairs, September/October 2008
Cordesman, Anthony, “Iraqi Force Development,” Center for Strategic and International Studies, July 2008
- “The Tenuous Case for Strategic Patience in Iraq,” Center for Strategic and International Studies, 8/6/07
Fadel, Leila, “Maliki’s growing defiance of U.S. worries allies and critics,” McClatchy Newspapers, 9/1/08
Gwertzman, Bernard, “Biddle: Security, Political Improvements Seen in Iraq in Recent Months,” Council on Foreign Relations, 11/15/07
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