Stephen Biddle is a senior fellow for defense policy at the Council on Foreign Relations. He has been one of the leading writers on Iraq, and was a consultant to General David Petraeus while he was commander in Iraq. This month, May 2009, he released a new report, “Reversal In Iraq.” In it he goes through four scenarios that might reverse course in Iraq, and then finishes off by saying that the U.S. needs to extend its deployment to make sure the gains made are maintained, and Iraq moves towards stability.
Biddle begins his paper by warning that the advances made in Iraq are fragile. This is something that the U.S. military command in the country has repeatedly said. Biddle believes that Iraq is in the beginning of a negotiated settlement to a civil war. In the 23 cases of similar conflicts that Biddle studied from 1940 to 1992, 10 failed within five years of a cease-fire. That is one reason why Biddle calls for caution. The added difficulty in Iraq is that the peace deals made there were all haphazard. Biddle counts over 200 separate negotiations that involved the U.S. and insurgents, tribes, and militias. In none of them was the Iraqi government involved. Now the country is dealing with the aftermath as most sides still distrust each other, and are trying to feel their way forward. This is by nature an unstable situation, made the more so by the bitterness left over by the sectarian war that raged from 2006-2007. Biddle believes that one little flare up could have unintended consequences and renew the fighting. Fortunately, conditions still favor cease-fires in Iraq.
The first situation that threatens this new status quo is the possible emergence of a strong man. That comes in the form of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. He has been amassing power in his office, and over the central government and security forces. He has also been taking on his opponents. One are the largely Sunni Sons of Iraq (SOI) units put together by the U.S. that are at the heart of many of the cease-fires in the country. Because each neighborhood has its own SOI leader Maliki has been able to pick off selected ones individually. By starting off with the ones that actually had bad backgrounds or committed crimes he has been able to avoid criticism from the United States. That was the case with the beginning of the government’s latest crackdown that began in March 2009 with the arrest of Adel Mashadani, the head of the SOI in the Fadhil area of Baghdad. U.S. forces backed up the Iraqis in the raid and ensuing firefight. The Americans later said that the arrest was legitimate, and repeated the Iraqi charges against him. The U.S. has said little about the subsequent arrests. Biddle is unsure whether Maliki really wants to be an autocrat or whether he is simply an opportunist trying to grab power when a situation presents itself. The problem Biddle sees is that the Prime Minister may overstep himself and lead to renewed fighting. Then again, with the multitude of unorganized Sunni units, Maliki may be able to manage the situation while eliminating the SOI piece by piece.
The most dangerous threat to long-term stability in Iraq is the Kurdish-Arab divide. In disputed areas like Kirkuk there is oil, a history of abuse under the former regime, competing claims for property rights, and a complete unwillingness to budge on any issue. Mosul is a similar situation. This conflict has allowed Al Qaeda in Iraq and other insurgent groups to find sanctuary in the north, while they have largely been forced out of the rest of the country by portraying themselves as the protectors of the Arabs against the Kurds. As reported several times before, Prime Minister Maliki is involved in this dispute as well, trying to align himself with the Sunni Arabs of the north to pressure the Kurds.
Another issue that might lead to renewed conflict in Iraq is a possible spillover from an Israeli attack on Iran. If Israel were to bomb Tehran’s nuclear facilities, that could lead to Shiite militia attacks on U.S. forces in Iraq since the Americans will be blamed for Israel’s actions. This seems the most unlikely of Biddle’s scenarios.
Fourth, a precipitous U.S. withdrawal might undermine all of the advances made in Iraq. Biddle believes that in many civil wars foreign peacekeepers are crucial to maintaining cease-fires. Many U.S. forces are no longer directly involved in combat operations and are now acting just like peacekeepers trying to mediate conflicts, help with reconstruction, providing basic services, etc. Biddle argues that if the U.S. were to leave too soon before real stability is achieved, the new status quo might deteriorate. That could bring in Iraq’s neighbors and bring down the entire region. A problem with this is that Iraq has already gone through a sectarian civil war where foreign countries were supporting different sides, and the conflict did not spread outside of Iraq.
Biddle concludes by calling for a longer stay for U.S. forces in Iraq. Looking at the American experience in Bosnia and Kosovo, he says that 50,000-70,000 American troops should remain in Iraq past the 2011 deadline set by the Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA). He even suggests that the U.S. might renegotiate the deal to allow for this. In the meantime he says that the U.S. should use all of its remaining influence to moderate the actions of Prime Minister Maliki. The U.S. still has sway with financial institutions, international organizations, and offers military assistance to the Iraqis. The problem is U.S. sway in Iraq is diminishing as the Obama administration is committed to withdrawal and Maliki is feeling more independent by the day.
Stephen Biddle has often made this argument. He and many other analysts from American think tanks are worried about what will happen after the U.S. leaves, so therefore they err on the side of caution. This is a view shared by the American commander in Iraq General Ray Odierno and General David Petraeus, the head of the Central Command that has responsibility for the Middle East as well. They originally argued for a 23-month timeline for pulling out U.S. troops. Not being discussed publicly now, but Biddle and his compatriots may get their way. The Iraqi Defense Minister Abdul Qadis Jasim said in 2008 that his forces will not be fully independent and capable of defending Iraq’s borders until 2020. The country is still in the process of buying heavy military equipment. The Air Force for example has no jet fighters, the army no artillery. In April 2009, the head of the Iraqi Air Force said they want to buy 96 F-16 fighters from the U.S. Baghdad has no money for such purchases right now however because of its budget problems. That could push back the 2020 date even further. Since either side can amend the SOFA, it’s very likely that Baghdad will ask a sizeable contingent of Americans to stay in the country past December 2011 until it’s ready to protect its own territory from both internal and external threats. The problem with Biddle’s paper is that there is no telling whether a longer stay will have any affect upon Iraq’s internal politics. Can Maliki be moderated? Can the Arab-Kurdish dispute be resolved? The U.S. hasn’t stopped Maliki’s crackdown on the SOI, and is deferring to the United Nations to resolve disputed territories in the north, and this is with over 100,000 troops in the country. Biddle and others may be misled into thinking that the U.S. has more influence within Iraq that it actually does.
For other reports by Iraq experts see:
Norwegian Institute's Policy Paper On The Way Forward In Iraq
Kenneth Pollack: Too Soon To Wave Victory Flag
Reidar Visser On Obama's Options In Iraq
Withdrawal Instead of Patience As Center of U.S. Strategy In Iraq
Iraq Needs Real Governance Center for Strategic and International Studies Report Says
Cordesman Interview: U.S. Needs To Stay For The Long Haul In Iraq
Council on Foreign Relations-Brookings' Experts Call for Patience In Iraq
Anthony Cordesman, CSIS Report on Iraqi Forces
Council on Foreign Relations and Brookings Institution Experts Voice Their Opinions After Recent Trip To Iraq
Is Iraq Going To End Up Like Eastern Europe?
Alsumaria, “Iraq to purchase F-16 fighters this year,” 4/1/09
Biddle, Stephen, “Reversal in Iraq,” Center for Preventative Action Council on Foreign Relations, May 2009
C-Span Video, “Stephen Biddle, Military Consultant To Gen. David Petraeus,” 9/10/07
Carter, Chelsea, “Falling oil prices stymie Iraq’s security spending,” Associated Press, 3/1/09
Gray, Andrew, "U.S. commanders favor slower Iraq pullout," Reuters, 2/7/09
Londono, Ernesto, “Plunging Oil Prices Force Iraq to Cut Security Jobs,” Washington Post, 5/18/09
Missing Links Blog, “Iraqi forces to be ready by the year 2020, according to plan,” 8/11/08
Nordland, Rod, “Rebellious Sunni Council Disarmed After Clashes, Officials in Baghdad Say,” New York Times, 3/31/09
Reid, Robert, “ANALYSIS: Weekend uprising shows Iraqi tensions,” Associated Press, 3/31/09
Rubin, Alissa and Nordland, Rod, “Troops Arrest an Awakening Council Leader in Iraq, Setting Off Fighting,” New York Times, 3/29/09
Bremer, Ambassador Paul L., My Year in Iraq, The Struggle to Build a Future of Hope , New York, London, Toronto, Sydney: Threshold Editions,...
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