Friday, July 11, 2008

Council on Foreign Relations and Brookings Institution Experts Voice Their Opinions After Recent Trip To Iraq

From May 28 to June 4, 2008 Stephen Biddle, a military expert and advisor to General David Petraeus, and Vali Nasr, a Middle East expert at Tufts University, from the Council on Foreign Relations, and Kenneth Pollack, senior fellow at the Saban Center for Middle East Policy, and Michael O’Hanlon, a national security expert, of the Brookings Institution went on a tour of Iraq. When they came back, they were interviewed by their organizations about what they saw. All came away impressed by the military gains that had been accomplished by the Surge and Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s offensives. They also saw the possibility for a re-alignment of Iraq’s politics. At the same time, they had reservations about Iraq’s economy, and the ability of the government to take advantage of the improved security.

The Surge

All four experts believed that the Surge stopped the sectarian war that started in 2006. O’Hanlon and Pollack were two of the earliest to write about the successes under the new military plan. Stephen Biddle has also written extensively about how the surge changed the status quo in Iraq. According to him, the U.S. was able to broker a series of local cease-fires with Sunni insurgents and tribes to quell the violence in central and western Iraq by November 2007. Other groups, such as Moqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army militia also decided to largely give up the fight against the Sunnis. What was left was the Al Qaeda in Iraq stronghold in northern part of the country, and the internal Shiite power struggle. Those were settled by Maliki’s offensives in Basra, Sadr City and Mosul. The effectiveness of the Iraqi security forces in carrying out their own operations impressed all four Americans, and they said it was the biggest story of 2008. Sadr’s militia was largely broken up in the process. The U.S. is also attempting to form a Sons of Iraq program in the walled off section of Sadr City that could be a step towards finally breaking up Sadr’s armed wing, just as it did with the Sunni insurgency. Al Qaeda in Iraq on the other hand has largely faded as the main threat to Iraqi security.

All four also said that the U.S. was entering into a new phase of operations in Iraq in 2008. Biddle believes that the U.S. will be more of a peacekeeper now maintaining the cease-fires it has brokered with various groups. Nasr, O’Hanlon, Pollack said that also means transitioning more towards nation building and economic policies. Pollack and O’Hanlon warned this could be a trouble spot for the U.S. if it stays focused upon the older issues like sectarianism, and doesn’t focus upon the new ones. These include what to do with the Sons of Iraq now that security is improving, what to do about Iraq’s refugees and internally displaced, how to remove the blast walls that have been erected throughout the capitol, maintaining the pressure on the Shiite militias, building up the Iraqi military while ensuring that didn’t lead to a coup, and improving the economy. That last point was Pollack’s and O’Hanlon’s greatest concern. All four didn’t see much progress in the government providing basic services to the public. The Brookings Institution members said that on the local level, that meant the U.S. was doing much of the work to provide for Iraqi citizens. Unemployment was also a major problem, and affected many issues such as the future of the Sons of Iraq. The plan is to move many of them towards government work, but there is no guarantee that any of them will get a job. The two didn’t see any real macro-economic development going on, or planning for it. Together, this was a major cause of discontent amongst Iraqis, who largely blamed their government for these shortcomings. This new situation the U.S. finds itself in was summed up well by an American general who told Pollack that progress, “Doesn’t mean no problems; it means new problems.”

Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and Iraqi Politics

Prime Minister Maliki has been the largest beneficiary of this changed status quo in Iraq, unexpectedly to all four. The Iraqi leader has his highest popularity levels so far after the government’s offensives. The question was, what would he do next. They thought that he would use his new standing to expand his political base. This is especially pressing because his Dawa party, which was always small and weak, just broke up into two. One major new constituency might be the discontented Shiites who followed Sadr. With the Mahdi Army weak, and the government establishing control over Sadr City, this is a group that is up for grabs. The main way Maliki can win them over is improving their lives. That was a problem however, as already pointed out, the government doesn’t have the capability to provide services right now. Nasr said he found no real coordination between Baghdad, the provinces, governors, and local councils, and that created a dysfunctional state. In Basra for example, Maliki promised $100 million after his offensive there to rebuild the city, but the governor doesn’t want the money, and the minister of justice that’s in charge of carrying out the plan doesn’t want the job. That opens the door for other parties to move in.

The Shiite Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council (SIIC) is the most likely to gain in this new situation, but they won’t go unchallenged. Nasr talked extensively about how the SIIC has the organization to win elections. He predicted that the SIIC would pick up Basra from the Fadhila party, which has been discredited there. The SIIC would also hold onto the holy cities of Najaf and Karbala. In the rest of the Shiite south the SIIC would have to compete with Dawa, the Sadrists, and more importantly a plethora of new parties. The Dawa and SIIC have not done well running the provinces however. They could focus attention on the Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) now under negotiation with the U.S. as a way to divert attention away from their own incompetence, and paint themselves as nationalists. The Sadrists would be hard pressed to gain any ground because the experts felt that the movement was falling apart. During the government’s offensives Sadr failed to provide any clear leadership, which left many disappointed with him, and cost him support as well. Some of his rivals also want to finish him off, or at least take away his followers. Many new parties are being established amongst Shiites as well, and they could gain ground in this new environment. Overall, Nasr felt that Shiite politics were fracturing in the run-up to the elections instead of the large parties coalescing. He thought that this was a bad occurrence because it could lead to too many groups running provincial councils, which would make decision making all that more difficult for a government system that barely works as is.

Relations With the U.S. and the Status Of Forces Agreement

The Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA), that will determine the future relationship between the U.S. and Iraq, was another major issue under debate within Iraq at the time of their visit. The U.S. originally did not want a SOFA, but rather a new United Nations mandate to operate in Iraq. It was Baghdad that insisted upon a formal bilateral agreement to assert its sovereignty. The problem is that such an agreement is widely unpopular amongst Iraqis, and the U.S. made things worse by not planning for the process. Within Iraq, Maliki does not have the support he needs right now to get the agreement passed. Parts of the SIIC and his own Dawa party are against the deal. He needs to unite the Shiites behind him before he can reach out to the Kurds and Sunnis, who have their own ideas on the issue, to have it ratified by parliament. Many Iraqi politicians also think that because Bush wants a SOFA before he leaves office, Baghdad can push the U.S. hard for as many concessions as they want, and Washington will give into them. O’Hanlon and Pollack felt that was a situation where Maliki could use his new political standing to push through an agreement. On the U.S. side, Nasr and Biddle didn’t think that the State Department had made any plans on how to sell the agreement to the Iraqis, which has made the negotiations even harder than they already are.


Since the Sunni insurgency has been tamed, Iran and the Special Groups have become the main provocateur in Iraq. O’Hanlon and Pollack were actually surprised that they did not hear that much about Iran from U.S. officers during their visit. They thought that the U.S. command in Iraq had a much more sophisticated view of the problem than the discourse going on in the U.S. According to them, the military believes that Iraq’s problems are mostly caused by internal disputes, but that Iran is making trouble in certain areas. Iran is too important a neighbor for Iraq to ever be free of, and Iraqi politicians want good relations. The Brookings Institution experts outlined three possible avenues for the U.S. to deal with Iran. One would be for the two sides to talk and work out their relationship, but they thought this was unlikely. Iran’s leadership was too internally divided to even agree itself on what it wants in Iraq to negotiate with the U.S. Second, the two sides could come to some kind of implicit agreement about their influence within Iraq. Last, Iraqi nationalism could assert itself and lesson Iran’s role in the country. They believed that the U.S. was actually one of the reasons why Iran had gained so much in the country. America had done so much damage to Iraq before the surge, that extremist groups and discontented Iraqis had gone to Iran for help. If new parties are created, military pressure is maintained against the militias, and Iraqis move to the lead more, O’Hanlon and Pollack postulated that could turn people away from going to Iran for assistance. At the same time, Nasr added that Iran lost standing when Maliki went into Basra and Sadr City to clear out Sadr’s militia and the Special Groups. He believes that Iran needs to readjust its policy as well. They could be doing that now with their insistence that Iraq not sign the SOFA with the U.S. This could divert attention away from Iran’s support of violent militias, and focus the public on the Americans instead.

The Future

The Brookings Institution and Council on Foreign Relations experts ended with their closing thoughts on the future of Iraq, with the latter being a bit more pessimistic. O’Hanlon and Pollack emphasized that the American public and politicians need to be informed about what is going on in Iraq because too many people are stuck in the past when Iraq was in the middle of a sectarian war. They believe that the media especially needs to open up the discussion so that America can decide on what it wants to do in Iraq now that the surge is ending and a new president is about to be elected. Biddle and Nasr on the other hand, finished by warning about the major problems the U.S. still faces in Iraq. One, the U.S. relies on a government that still doesn’t work. Second, on their trip they didn’t see much evidence of long-term strategic planning on the part of the U.S. government on what to do next. Instead, everything was focused upon the present, and was a bit haphazard. They pointed to the problems with the SOFA agreement, and what to do with the Sons of Iraq, as examples of the U.S. government not strategizing.


All four experts presented very interesting observations about Iraq. They outlined the military success of the surge, and how the U.S. now needs to deal with the political and economic front. They believe that a new status quo is emerging, but that it is still fragile, and unpredictable with new parties competing with the established ones, and a prime minister, full of confidence, but perhaps unable to capitalize upon his success. They also warned that unless the U.S. begins to focus upon the new issues emerging, the gains in security could be lost. Iraq is no longer in the middle of the sectarian war like it was in 2006-2007. The U.S. is also ending its troop increase this month in July. The coming months and years are just as important, and possibly more, for the future of Iraq than the previous fourteen under the Surge because Baghdad needs to prove that it can maintain the gains made, and O’Hanlon, Pollack, Biddle, and Nasr present important issues that Americans need to consider about what comes next.


Biddle, Stephen, “Patient Stabilized?” National Interest, 2/29/08

Biddle, Stephen, Nasr, Vali, Nash, William, “Political and Security Developments in Iraq and the Region,” Council on Foreign Relations, 6/12/08

Brookings Institution, “Iraq: One Year Later,” 6/13/08

O’Hanlon, Michael and Pollack, Kenneth, “A War We Must Win,” New York Times, 7/30/07

Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, “Defense Analyst Sees ‘Enormous Progress’ In Iraq Security Situation,” 7/1/08

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