Bringing It All Back Home Or Back To The Iraq Future

Tom Ricks in the NYT

Whether or not the elections bring the long-awaited political breakthrough that genuinely ends the fighting there, 2010 is likely to be a turning-point year in the war, akin to the summer of 2003 (when the United States realized that it faced an insurgency) and 2006 (when that insurgency morphed into a small but vicious civil war and American policy came to a dead end). For good or ill, this is likely the year we will begin to see the broad outlines of post-occupation Iraq. The early signs are not good, with the latest being the decision over the weekend of the leading Sunni party, the National Dialogue Front, to withdraw from the elections.

The political situation is far less certain, and I think less stable, than most Americans believe. A retired Marine colonel I know, Gary Anderson, just returned from Iraq and predicts a civil war or military coup by September. Another friend, the journalist Nir Rosen, avers that Iraq is on a long-term peaceful course. Both men know Iraq well, having spent years working there. I have not seen such a wide discrepancy in expert views since late 2005.

The period surrounding the surge of 2007 has been misremembered. It was not about simply sending 30,000 more troops to Iraq; it was about using force differently, moving the troops off big bases to work with Iraqi units and live among the people. Perhaps even more significantly, the surge signaled a change in American attitudes, with more humility about what could be done, more willingness to listen to Iraqis, and with quietly but sharply reduced ambitions.

The Bush administration’s grandiose original vision of transforming Iraq into a beacon of democracy that would alter the Middle East and drain the swamps of terrorism was scuttled and replaced by the more realistic goal of getting American forces out and leaving behind a country that was somewhat stable and, with luck, perhaps democratic and respectful of human rights. As part of the shift, the American commander, Gen. David Petraeus, also effectively put the Sunni insurgency on the American payroll.

Looking back now, I think the surge was the right thing to do. In rejecting the view of the majority of his military advisers and embracing the course proposed by a handful of dissidents, President Bush found his finest moment. That said, the larger goal of the surge was to facilitate a political breakthrough, which has not happened.

All the existential questions that plagued Iraq before the surge remain unanswered. How will oil revenue be shared among the country’s major groups? What is to be the fundamental relationship between Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds? Will Iraq have a strong central government or be a loose confederation? And what will be the role of Iran (for my money, the biggest winner in the Iraq war thus far)?

Nir Rosen at Rick’s place at Foreign Policy has a different point of view:

It’s been frustrating to read the latest hysteria about sectarianism returning to Iraq, the threat of a new civil war looming, or even the notion that Iraq is “unraveling.” I left Iraq today after an intense mission on behalf of Refugees International. My colleague Elizabeth Campbell and I traveled comfortably and easily throughout Baghdad, Salahedin, Diyala and Babil. We were out among Iraqis until well into the night every day, often in remote villages, traveling in a normal Toyota Corolla. Our main hassle was traffic and having to go through a thousand security checkpoints a day. Stay tuned for our report next month about the humanitarian crisis in Iraq (which deserves more attention than political squabbles) and the situation of Iraqis displaced since 2003. Stay tuned for my own article about what I found politically as well. And finally stay tuned later this year for my book on the Iraqi civil war, the surge, counterinsurgency and the impact of  the war in Iraq on the region.

From the beginning of the occupation the US government and media focused too much on elite level politics and on events in the Green Zone, neglecting the Iraqi people, the “street,” neighborhoods, villages, mosques. They were too slow to recognize the growing resistance to the occupation, too slow to recognize that there was a civil war and now perhaps for the same reason many are worried that there is a “new” sectarianism or a new threat of civil war. The US military is not on the streets and cannot accurately perceive Iraq, and journalists are busy covering the elections and the debaathification controversy, but not reporting enough from outside Baghdad, or even inside Baghdad.

Iraqis on the street are no longer scared of rival militias so much, or of being exterminated and they no longer have as much support for the religious parties. Maliki is still perceived by many to be not very sectarian and not very religious, and more of a “nationalist.” Another thing people would notice if they focused on “the street” is that the militias are finished, the Awakening Groups/SOIs are finished, so violence is limited to assassinations with silencers and sticky bombs and the occasional spectacular terrorist attack — all manageable and not strategically important, even if tragic. Politicians might be talking the sectarian talk but Iraqis have grown very cynical.

When you talk to people they tell you that the sectarian phase is over. Of course with enough fear it could come back, but Shiites do not feel threatened by any other group, and Sunnis aren’t being rounded up, the security forces provide decent enough security, and they are pervasive, there is no reason for people to cling to militias in self defense and besides militiamen are still being rounded up, I just don’t see enough fuel here for a conflagration — leaving aside the Arab/Kurdish fault line, of course. (Though if Maliki went to war with the Kurds that would only further unite Sunni and Shiite Arabs.) The Iraqi Security Forces like Maliki enough, even if they prefer Alawi. The Iraqi army will not fall apart on sectarian lines, it would attack Sunni and Shiite militias, if there were any, but these militias are emasculated. They can assassinate and dispatch car bombs but they can’t hold ground, they can’t engage in firefights with checkpoints. The Iraqi Security Forces might arrest a lot of innocent people, but they’re also rounding up “bad guys” and getting a lot of tips from civilians. The Iraqi Security Forces might be brutal, sometimes corrupt, but they no longer act as death squads, they take their role very seriously, perhaps too seriously, but these days anything is better than the recent anarchy and sectarian massacres.

Kimberly Kagan and Frederick Kagan in WSJ:

Success remains possible, but only if the Obama administration abandons the campaign rhetoric of “end this war” and commits itself to helping Iraqis build a just, accountable, representative government. It needs to establish long-term security ties that will bind our two states together, including the continuing deployment of American military forces in Iraq if the Iraqis so desire.

Many fundamental questions will be answered this year about how Iraq is to be governed that will shape its development for decades. Is the election free, fair and inclusive? Do all communities emerge from it with leaders who they feel represent them? Is there a peaceful transition of power? What is the relationship between the central government and provincial governments? What role will the military play in the evolving political system? Does Iran get to vet Iraqi political candidates? What relationship will the U.S. have with Iraq over the long term?

Tehran seems to know what answers it wants regarding Iraq’s future. Iranian officials, including President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki and Chairman of the Assembly of Experts Ayatollah Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, worked doggedly in 2009 to rebuild the coalition of the three major Iraqi Shiite parties that had run in 2005 as a bloc. That effort failed when Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki refused to join.

The Iranians then actively but unsuccessfully lobbied for Iraq’s parliament to pass a closed-list election law in October 2009 in which the people could not choose particular candidates, seeking to increase their control of political parties and thus electoral outcomes.

On Jan. 7, 2010, when Foreign Minister Mottaki visited Iraq, the Accountability and Justice Commission (which was established in August 2003 to vet individuals who might serve in the government for links to the Baath Party) announced that it was banning more than 500 candidates from the upcoming parliamentary elections. They included some of the most prominent Sunni leaders who had been running on cross-sectarian lists.

Ahmed Chalabi, a leading member of the Iranian-backed Shiite list, helped drive the ban through the commission. So did Ali Faisal al-Lami. Mr. Lami was arrested in 2008 for orchestrating an attack by the Iranian proxy group Aseeb Ahl al Haq (AAH) that killed six Iraqis and four Americans in Sadr City. AAH splinters re-activated its military activities, after a year long cease-fire, by kidnapping an American contractor on Jan. 23. AAH is nevertheless running candidates such as Mr. Lami for parliamentary seats.

But politics is by no means Tehran’s only sphere of influence in Iraq. The Iranian armed forces violated Iraqi sovereignty on at least two occasions in 2009—U.S. forces shot down an Iranian drone in Iraqi territory in March 2009, and Iranian troops ostentatiously seized an Iraqi oil well in December 2009 as the Iraqis completed a round of international oil bids.

Jackson Diehl in WaPo:

How odd, then, that Iraq — where the United States has invested $700 billion and the lives of more than 4,300 soldiers over the past seven years — is no longer a top priority for the White House, the State Department or nearly anyone in Congress.

Two Americans who understand how big the stakes are — U.S. Ambassador Christopher Hill and top commander Gen. Raymond Odierno — were in Washington last week to explain. Iraq’s March 7 election and what follows it, Hill said, will “determine the future of Iraq . . . and also the future of the U.S. relationship with Iraq.”

Said Odierno: “We have an opportunity in Iraq today that we might never get again in our lifetimes . . . to develop a democratic Iraq that has a long-term partnership with the United States.”

Compare that with Obama’s account of Iraq in his State of the Union address: “We are responsibly leaving Iraq to its people. . . . We will have all of our combat troops out of Iraq by the end of this August.” That pledge means that even while Iraq passes through this crucial turning point, U.S. forces will be reduced from 98,000 now to 50,000 on Sept. 1.

[...]

First among these is Iran, which has a simple strategy for the coming months: Turn the elections into a bitter sectarian battle — and thereby ensure that the next government will be led by its hard-line Shiite allies.

To an alarming extent, the campaign is succeeding. Tehran’s leading agent, as both Hill and Odierno noted, is Ahmed Chalabi, a Shiite who in 2002 played a major role in persuading the Bush administration to go to war. Now he has managed to have hundreds of candidates eliminated from the election on the mostly bogus grounds that they were or are loyalists of Saddam Hussein’s Baath party. His targets are not just Sunni leaders but secular nationalists — the two most important banned candidates are leading members of cross-sectarian alliances. The success of those tickets would be a triumph for Iraqi democracy — and a huge setback for Iran.

Chalabi aims to become prime minister of the next government, which would be a disaster for Iraq and for Washington. And worse outcomes are possible. Also angling for power are Bayan Jabr, a Shiite who oversaw the interior ministry when it was infamous for torture and death squads; and Ibrahim Jaafari, who as prime minister oversaw the eruption of the sectarian war of 2006-07.

Marc Lynch at Foreign Policy:

The headline here is that General Odierno is planning contingencies for slowing down U.S. drawdown plans, but I don’t actually think that’s much of a story.  Of course he is — it would be irresponsible to not plan for contingencies. But I’ve seen little indication that the Obama administration, or for that matter Gen. Odierno, has been anything but committed to the drawdown from Iraq. That commitment has been clear, and that’s all the the good.

There’s been a mini-boom of late in commentary urging Obama to delay his timeline for drawing down U.S. forces, or at least to “do more” –  the Kagans are shocked, shocked to discover that Iranians are influential in Iraq, Jackson Diehl just wants Obama to care more about Iraq (without any hint of what policies might follow). They should be ignored. The administration is handling Iraq calmly, maturely, and patiently,  has demonstrated in word and deed its commitment to its drawdown policy, and has tried hard to thread a devilish needle of trying to shape events without triggering an extremely potent Iraqi backlash. It is possible, if not likely, that there could be slippage on the August deadline of getting to 50,000 troops, mainly because the elections slipped all the way to March. That’s one of the reasons I always was skeptical of pegging the drawdown to the elections, but that ship has long since sailed. But the SOFA target of December 2011 for a full U.S. withdrawal is a legal deadline, not a political one. It could only be changed at the request of the Iraqi government, and not by American fiat. While Iraqi politicians may say in private that they may be open to a longer U.S. presence, very few will say so in public — because it would be political suicide in a nationalist, highly charged electoral environment.

The drawdown will probably matter considerably less than people expect. With the new SOFA-defined rules of engagement, U.S. forces have already stopped doing many of the things associated with the “surge.” The Iraqi response to American efforts on the de-Baathification circus demonstrate painfully clearly that the nearly 100,000 troops still in Iraq gave very little leverage on an issue which the U.S. at least publicly deemed vital — a point made very effectively by Ambassador Hill at the Council on Foreign Relations last week. The sharp backlash against even the measured criticisms by U.S. officials offers an important lesson:  Doing the sorts of assertive things which may please Obama’s critics are highly likely to spark a negative reaction among Iraqis, generating more hostility to the U.S. role without actually accomplishing anything. The U.S. is wise to avoid them.

That doesn’t mean that things are rosy. The de-Baathification circus has demonstrated the fragility of Iraqi institutions, and helped to reignite sectarian resentments and fears (many Sunnis feel targeted, while many Shia are being treated to an endless barrage of anti-Ba’athist electoral propaganda). There’s very much a risk of long, drawn-out coalition talks after the election. It isn’t certain how a transition from power will go, should Maliki’s list lose, given the prime minister’s efforts to centralize power in his office over the last few years. There may well be a spike in violence by frustrated losers in the elections. If there’s massive fraud on election day, things could get ugly. The elections, already marred by the de-Baathification fiasco, may well end up producing a new Parliament and government which doesn’t really change much. There are big, long-deferred issues to confront after the elections, such as the Article 140 referendum over Kirkuk.

But none of those issues would be resolved by an American effort to delay its military drawdown. They generally fall into the “sub-optimal” rather than the “catastrophic” category. An American decision to delay the drawdown would not likely be welcomed by Iraqis in the current political environment. Nor would it generate more leverage for the U.S. over internal Iraqi affairs. Iraq’s future is not really about us, if it ever was — not a function of American military levels, commitment, or caring, but rather of internal Iraqi power struggles and dynamics.

David Dayen at Firedoglake:

First of all, Odierno has no power to decide whether troops stay or go. He is bound, as the United States is bound, by a standing agreement on the status of forces with Iraq, and any stay beyond the dates contained therein would represent a violation of international law. Second, “if something happens” is far too broad a category to make a determination on troop levels. Something will happen, as it has been happening in Iraq ever since the invasion, as it will continue while groups jockey for power. It will happen with 100,000 US troops in the country or 50,000 troops or 5 troops. Our presence has no impact on that whatsoever.

I’m getting very nervous about this. You’re starting to see the very serious people demand we stay in Iraq, in one case using the circular argument that we must remain to stop Ahmed Chalabi, who was instrumental in us invading Iraq in the first place, from becoming Prime Minister. Our foreign policy establishment can only conceive of starting wars, not ending them. We are currently occupied with two of the three longest wars in American history – and if some neocons have their way, a third will follow soon. It’s time to leave Iraq to its people, as the President has consistently stated. No election or act of violence can change that.

Spencer Ackerman on Odierno:

Here’s the transcript. Odierno starts his Q&A with the Pentagon press yesterday by noting that after 2011 the U.S. military presence, by mutual agreement, will be “what we’d usually have at a normal embassy, a military contingent that would help to support Iraq.” Iraq will have to request any additional military presence, and Odierno says he’d probably expect some requested help with all the U.S. weaponry we’ll continue selling to Iraq. Later on, long after the contingency-planning line — which occurs in the context of his recent anti-Chalabi comments about Iranian influence in Iraq — he says that he expects the drawdown to 50,000 troops by September to hold “probably somewhere through the middle of 2011, and then we’ll begin to draw down to zero.” Zero. Unless there’s some request by the Iraqis and the Obama administration accedes. Big difference between 96,000 troops (where we are now) and a bunch of guys to help Iraqis use an American tank.

Peter Feaver at Foreign Policy:

Senior figures in the Defense Department and U.S. military leaders on the ground in Iraq have signaled that they are watching closely to determine whether conditions on the ground will permit sticking with the withdrawal timetable negotiated by President Bush in the 2008 Status of Forces Agreement. Apparently, they still estimate that conditions will allow a responsible withdrawal, but the mere fact that they are signaling concern should be, well, concerning for our political leaders.

The desire of the political community to put Iraq in the rear-view mirror is understandable, but misguided. The national security challenges that are receiving front-burner attention — especially Afghanistan and Iran — are integrally linked to the policy trajectory in Iraq. Since the fateful surge decision, the Iraq policy trajectory has been far more positive than anyone, academics or practitioners, thought likely. But the progress remains reversible and if Iraq unravels, then all of the other national security problems will get that much more difficult to address.

The theme of the academic conference was bridging the gap between academics and practitioners. In taking the collective eye off the ball on Iraq, it seems academics and practitioners may be unfortunately all-too-much in synch.

Spencer Ackerman, riffing off Feaver:

Over the last several years, there’s been a lot of head-nodding in foreign policy circles that we have to put our shoulders to the grindstone and take Seriously the fact that we’re waging two prolonged wars. Now, as a statement of fact, if you find yourself in two wars, ignoring at least one of them is obviously undesirable. Alternatively, ending at least one of them — particularly if one of them isn’t in the national interest — is a good idea. But when people started saying that Iraq distracted from Afghanistan, I’m not sure if the full implication was really absorbed. I remember the Bush administration, implausibly, pushing against it, saying this-or-that combat brigade or intelligence asset might be in Iraq but that didn’t mean Afghanistan was shortchanged.

But perhaps the right lesson is to replay that war is too complex and demanding to have to compete with a whole other war simultaneously, for any sustained period. It’s not just a question of launching discrete military strikes — your occasional Hellfire missile — or having X-number of troops or X-amount of money. It’s that you only have so many exceptional officers. You only have so much time in the day. You only have so many creative intelligence analysts. You only have so much mental ability to process complex and ever-changing amounts of data that mean the difference between life and death and the protection of national interests. There’s only so much human beings, organized into groups for the purposes of accomplishing a task, can do. War is hard.

Robert Dreyfuss in The Nation

UPDATE: Andrew Sullivan

Ricks responds

Sullivan responds

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One response to “Bringing It All Back Home Or Back To The Iraq Future

  1. Pingback: What We’ve Built Today « Around The Sphere

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