Uh oh, Meghan O'Sullivan has something to say about Iraq...
While visiting Iraq this month, Biden spoke of a need to broker a grand bargain between Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds, and to resolve disputes between "the different confessional groups." He made clear that he -- and, presumably, the United States -- saw Iraq's challenges and solutions largely in terms of sectarian or ethnic groups. Discussing Iraq's problems in such terms pushes Iraqis back toward the boxes they have been trying to leave behind -- and undermines incipient movement away from the dominance of sectarian political identities toward issues-based politics.
To many Iraqis, such language is familiar. The failure in security from 2004 well into 2007 crystallized sectarian and ethnic identities; Sunni extremists and Shiite militias identified both their targets and those they protected on sectarian grounds. But this language is also increasingly outdated. Security improvements over the past two years have created space for Iraqis to begin moving away from seeing themselves and their problems in such terms. Indeed, in the provincial elections held in January, issues seemed to matter to voters at least as much as identities...
The current tensions between Baghdad and the Kurdistan Regional Government are frequently presented simplistically as manifestations of historical animosities between Arabs and Kurds. Certainly, cultural factors do matter, and Iraq's long history -- including, of course, Saddam Hussein's brutal efforts to eradicate the Kurds -- shapes the nature of the problems and the lens through which they are viewed.
But the reality is that Iraq's most difficult problems are primarily about substantive issues. Iraqis and their leaders are divided on fundamental questions about the nature of the state -- specifically, whether the locus of power should be in Baghdad or in the provinces. Should Iraq be a more traditional Arab state, where power is centralized in the capital? Or should the regions and the provinces -- i.e., the KRG -- have substantial authorities and autonomy?
Now, I don't think this is bad advice--I've also questioned Biden's "appointment" as the de facto special envoy to Iraq. In a lot of ways his--and, more broadly, America's--conception of power-sharing and national reconciliation in Iraq seems trapped in the Bosnia paradigm of divvying up territory along ethnic lines and calling it peace. I don't think that's particularly helpful for Iraq. We have to avoid policies that reinforce the country's ethno-sectarian divisions (which, to be honest, O'Sullivan and some of those she advised played a role, even if inadvertently, in exacerbating in the early years of the war).
But do you really think the average Kurd or Arab in the street, let alone their respective leadership in Erbil and Baghdad, is thinking about this in terms of abstract federalism? I think it's likely that the identity issue is salient. There's a long history there that predates Saddam, and nobody's forgotten it. That doesn't mean that Kurds and Arabs are destined to fight for eternity, but it does make the situation much more dangerous and harder to solve than a federalism dispute between Washington and Sacramento.
I've also been keeping track of the apparent controversy over Iraq's (gasp) tough enforcement of the SOFA terms to limit U.S. operations. Is this really that much of a surprise? It shouldn't be--I'm not sure what else we were expecting. It was clear from the beginning of the SOFA negotiations that the Iraqis were deadly serious about it. They want to run the show, and we have to respect that. They might not be as "ready" or effective as U.S. forces, but it seems like we really have to learn to let go a bit on the security front. Let's wait a bit and see how this shakes out before pronouncing it a disaster.
One of our regular blog readers requested some discussion of the recent spate of bombings in Iraq and the implications for the U.S. pullout from Iraqi cities set for June 30 (this Tuesday--mark it on your calendar). This wave of attacks has prompted a good amount of hand-wringing about the coming “unraveling” of the country. Here’s my two-cent analysis.
Obviously we don't want to underestimate how dangerous and violent Iraq is. Even with the dramatic improvements in security over the past two years, it's not exactly a choice vacation destination and probably won't be for the foreseeable future. From the remnants of AQI to the underground members of the JAM and “special groups,” there’s no shortage of bad guys out there who would like to undermine the Iraqi government. With U.S. forces pulling back, they have some opportunity to reemerge, probe the capabilities of the Iraqi security forces, and spark a new round of communal strife.
Despite all these bombings, we have yet to see signs that the death spiral of sectarian retaliation has returned or is about to return. This is a point that General Odierno has made with some regularity. The attacks in and of themselves are terrible, but not necessarily strategically significant unless they trigger waves of reprisals that Iraqi forces cannot control. If there are signs of this occurring, it doesn’t seem like they’re being noticed. Instead we get statements from al-Sadr after the recent attacks calling for restraint. Obviously we can’t take that restraint for granted, but that still seems qualitatively better than the days of 2006.
In any case, even if we’re concerned about some degradation of security, what are we supposed to do? A number of folks, including Stephen Biddle, have counseled slowing the pace of withdrawal, but to exactly what end? Iraq’s forces may not be the best in the world and Maliki may be overconfident, but it seems to me that what the Iraqis need is more assistance in resolving some underlying conflicts that can drive violence (Sunni integration into government, Kurdish territorial and oil disputes) and developing the governmental and economic institutions necessary to sustain the state. It’s not clear to me that continuing our troop presence in Iraq at its current level and disposition is still required to advance those goals.
Of course, I could be completely wrong. But if Iraq is about to go off the rails, I will predict that it will not be because of the Sunni-Shi’ite divide that still gets a lot of the U.S. media focus. It will either be a flaring-up of the simmering Kurdish-Arab conflict, or something else we haven’t thought of yet.
Days after top Iraqi and American officials suggested that a draft of the security pact between the countries was close, Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki toughened his language, reiterating earlier Iraqi demands for a fixed date for the withdrawal of American troops.What is going on? The straight forward explanation is that Maliki is asserting Iraqi sovereignty and demanding the full withdrawal of the occupier. But Dr. iRack thinks the answer may be a bit more complicated than that.
“It is not possible for any agreement to conclude unless it is on the basis of full sovereignty and the national interest, and that no foreign soldiers remain in Iraqi soil after a defined time ceiling,” Mr. Maliki said in a speech to Shiite tribal leaders in Baghdad’s Green Zone.
Though Mr. Maliki seemed to be referring to all foreign troops in his statements, Iraqi negotiators have said recently that an agreed-upon 2011 date is for combat forces only, and that “training and support” forces could remain after that if invited by the Iraqi government. On Monday, a senior Iraqi official said he understood that even a departure date for combat troops would be “conditions driven.”The Iraqi consensus--both civilian and military--is that Iraq's Army won't be able to defend their country from external aggression for a decade. That is why Maliki and other Iraqi leaders have pushed for an external security assurance within the context of the Strategic Framework Agreement. It therefore seems unlikely that even Maliki would risk having zero U.S. support assets in Iraq post-2011.
"The agreement will be met with significant public discomfort," said an aide to Maliki. "So Iraqi officials will resort to using the dates mentioned in the agreement to sell it to the public, even though they might be intended to be used in a guidance way."
The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to the media, added: "If you ask the prime minister, 'What happens if the situation on the ground changes before 2011?' then he would obviously say that the dates might need to be changed."
In the context of these improving political, economic, and security conditions, the President and the Prime Minister discussed the ongoing negotiations to establish a normalized bilateral relationship between Iraq and the United States. The leaders agreed on a common way forward to conclude these negotiations as soon as possible, and noted in particular the progress made toward completing a broad strategic framework agreement that will build on the Declaration of Principles signed last November, and include areas of cooperation across many fields, including economics, diplomacy, health, culture, education, and security.“A general time horizon for meeting aspirational goals." Seriously? That’s the best they could do. That phraseology ranks right up there with "WMD-related program activities."
In the area of security cooperation, the President and the Prime Minister agreed that improving conditions should allow for the agreements now under negotiation to include a general time horizon for meeting aspirational goals -- such as the resumption of Iraqi security control in their cities and provinces and the further reduction of U.S. combat forces from Iraq. The President and Prime Minister agreed that the goals would be based on continued improving conditions on the ground and not an arbitrary date for withdrawal. The two leaders welcomed in this regard the return of the final surge brigade to the United States this month, and the ongoing transition from a primary combat role for U.S. forces to an overwatch role, which focuses on training and advising Iraqi forces, and conducting counter-terror operations in support of those forces.
This transition and the subsequent reduction in U.S. forces from Iraq is a testament to the improving capacity of Iraq's Security Forces and the success of joint operations that were initiated under the new strategy put in place by the President and the Prime Minister in January 2007.
The White House offered no specifics about how far off any “time horizon” would be, with officials saying details remained to be negotiated. Any dates cited in an agreement would be cast as goals for handing responsibility to Iraqis, and not specifically for reducing American troops, said a White House spokesman, Gordon D. Johndroe. . . .The Iraqi government, however, described the agreement in somewhat different terms. The NYT continues:
On the prospect of dates for American withdrawals, Mr. Johndroe, the White House spokesman, said that the agreement would not prescribe American troop levels over time, but rather reflect a transition to Iraqi command. “The agreement will look at goal dates for transition of responsibilities and missions,” Mr. Johndroe said in an e-mail message. “The focus is on the Iraqi assumption of missions, not on what troop levels will be.”
Under pressure from political parties wanting a diminishing American role, Mr. Maliki began demanding something in the agreement that would make it clear that American troops were on the way out. Iraq’s statement on Friday, reflecting those internal sensitivities, referred more specifically than the American version to “a time frame for the complete transfer of the security responsibilities to the hands of the Iraqi security as preface to decrease the number of the American forces and withdraw them later from Iraq.”Similarly, the Washington Post reported:
In Baghdad, a member of Mr. Maliki’s Dawa Party, Ali al-Adeeb, said the withdrawal of American and other foreign forces was fundamental to an accord. “The Iraqi government considers the determination of a specific date for the withdrawal of foreign forces an important issue to deal with,” he said. “I don’t know what the American side thinks, but we consider it the core of the subject.”
Iraqi government spokesman Ali Dabbagh confirmed in a statement that Iraq and the United States had agreed "to specify a time horizon to achieve a full handover of security responsibility to the Iraqi forces in order to decrease American forces and allow for its withdrawal from Iraq."So what explains the different interpretations? And if the Maliki government appears set on establishing some timetable, why did they sign on to a more ambiguous time horizon? Two possibilities suggest themselves:
But Sadiq Rikabi, a senior political adviser to Maliki, said in an interview that negotiators were still hashing out the details of troop cuts. The Iraqi government, he said, wants specific timelines governing different stages of what will eventually become a full U.S. withdrawal of combat forces.
"There are two principles that determine the military relationship: no permanent bases and no permanent existence," Rikabi said. "In such a way, there should be a timetable for withdrawal."
But even the most extreme of these hubristic Shia advisers [to Maliki] strongly favor a partnership with the United States. "Iraq is flying west," one of them told me over a dinner of rice, kabobs, and masghouf (a fish dish). The debate over the details of the military arrangements for 2009 has overshadowed a much more important point, he said, echoing the comments of the young people at the party headquarters we visited: Iraq wants American help of every kind. The security arrangements must be seen within the context of this larger partnership, he added. Like American politicians, of course, he and the rest of Iraq's leaders have to figure out how to sell any specific agreement to the parliament--and to the voters. That makes negotiations difficult, but it is also the strongest possible sign of hope in Iraq.Yet by simplistically framing the issue as a choice between unconditional partnership and total abandonment, Kagan never asks herself: "OK, the Iraqis want us, they need us, so what should we get from them in return for this support?" That is the key political question for the next administration . . . and it is vital if the United States is to push Maliki et al. to make the difficult compromises necessary to lock-in the gains from the surge. The Kagans of the world don't (ever) see that. Instead, they simply use everything and its opposite to make the case that we should stay, forever, no strings attached.
The whole purpose of the surge was to transform the conflict over power in Iraq from a military to a political struggle. We and the Iraqis have accomplished that goal--for now. But the most critical period in the birth of a new Iraq lies ahead. America can stand beside this fractious and sometimes violent young state whose people are now passionate about democracy. Or we can abandon them to their enemies, to their own fears and insecurities, and to the fragility of their months-old efforts at real reconciliation. It is a weighty choice, but not a hard one for anyone who has seen the vision of a possible future Iraq.
All of this seems to validate a number of points Dr. iRack has been making for some time now:
In an audio recording of his remarks, heard by the BBC, the prime minister did not use the word "withdrawal".
What he actually said was: "The direction is towards either a memorandum of understanding on their evacuation, or a memorandum of understanding on programming their presence."
Mr Maliki's own office had inserted the word "withdrawal" in the written version, replacing the word "presence".
Contacted by the BBC, the prime minister's office had no explanation for the apparent contradiction. An official suggested the written version remained the authoritative one, although it is not what Mr Maliki said.
The impression of a hardening Iraqi government line was reinforced the following day by comments from the National Security Adviser, Muwaffaq al-Rubaie.
He was quoted as saying that Iraq would not accept any agreement which did not specify a deadline for a full withdrawal of US troops.
Significantly, Mr Rubaie was speaking immediately after a meeting with the senior Shiite clerical eminence, Ayatollah Ali Sistani.
But in subsequent remarks, Mr Rubaie rode back from a straightforward demand for a withdrawal deadline.
He said the talks were focused on agreeing on "timeline horizons, not specific dates", and said that withdrawal timings would depend on the readiness of the Iraqi security forces.
The confusion reflects the dilemma facing Iraqi government leaders.
On the one hand, many of them - particularly among the Shia factions - face a public which regards the US presence as a problem rather than a solution.
With provincial elections coming up soon, they could be outflanked by more militant elements such as the supporters of cleric Moqtada Sadr, who wants American forces out now and opposes negotiations that would cover their continued presence.
Yet the government knows that its own forces are not yet in a position to stand on their own against the two major challenges they face - the Sunni radicals of al-Qaeda and related groups, and the militant Shia militias which were partly suppressed in fierce battles this spring in Basra and Baghdad.
Both groups could simply bide their time awaiting the American withdrawal before making a comeback drive.
Violence has fallen off considerably from the horrendous levels of 2006 and the first half of 2007, but hundreds of people are still dying violent deaths every month.
Hence the ambiguity in statements by Iraqi leaders, who know that their own survival depends on US support continuing until Iraqi forces are genuinely able to stand alone.
[I]n order to reach an accord, the U.S. will need to do a better job of diplomacy -- never a strong suit of this administration. The Iraqis, for their part, will have to overcome the intoxication produced by recent victories and come to a realistic appraisal that they will need substantial American support for years to come. [Hat tip to American Footprints for tagging this op-ed, and giving Dr. iRack a shout-out.]That's it. Just "better" diplomacy. To be fair, Boot argues that U.S. negotiators should offer a few small face-saving concessions at the tactical level (e.g., joint procedures for processing detainees), but he offers no strategy that would improve the prospects of a bilateral deal that would benefit both countries.
[A] permanent U.S. military presence – albeit one reduced over time – would give Iraqis the confidence to continue their political maturation. Another Iraq national election is scheduled for next year, and it is an opportunity for democracy to put down even deeper roots. It's crucial for Americans to understand that, apart from the Sadrists, all factions of Iraqi politics now support some kind of U.S.-Iraq status of forces agreement to succeed the U.N. mandate that expires later this year.So, in the context of near-victory, this crowd simply can't fathom why the Iraqis would try to screw things up by thwarting a SOFA that is required to authorize the presence of U.S. forces in Iraq in 2009 and beyond.
We are winning in Iraq. Indeed, we can now say with certainty that we will win, as long as we don't repeat our earlier mistakes and seek to draw down too soon [emphasis added].
Moreover, because Maliki et al. are increasingly overconfident that they can police Iraq all by themselves, and the Bush administration has done a great job of convincing the Iraqi government that we need them more than they need us (because our support to Maliki, at the strategic level, is effectively unconditional), the current Iraqi ruling coalition believes they have all the leverage. This shouldn't be the case. After all, Boot is right when he corrects the false impression that the ISF is ready to go it alone:
The Bush administration's Iraq policy suffered two major setbacks Friday when Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki publicly rejected key U.S. terms for an ongoing military presence and anti-American Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr called for a new militia offensive against U.S. forces. . . .
The moves by two of Iraq's most powerful Shiite leaders underscore how the presence of U.S. troops has become a central issue for Iraqi politicians as they position themselves for provincial elections later this year. Iraqis across the political spectrum have grown intolerant of the U.S. presence, but the dominant Shiite parties -- including Maliki's Dawa party -- are especially fearful of an electoral challenge from new, grass-roots groups.
"All the politicians are trying to prove that they care more about Iraqis than they do about Americans -- otherwise they know the people and the voters will not support them," said Ala Maaki, a senior lawmaker with Iraqi's largest Sunni political party. "I think we could see al-Maliki and Moqtada Sadr trying to one-up the other today and see who can take the strongest stand against the Americans."
In reality, while Iraqi troops are becoming much more capable, they still rely on U.S. assistance for key "enablers" such as logistics, surveillance, communications and air support. Without that help, which is coordinated by U.S. advisors embedded with Iraqi units, Iraqi security forces -- no matter how brave and dedicated -- would be hard put to operate successfully against such hardened terrorists as Al Qaeda and the extremist Shiite factions known as "special groups." American troops also serve a vital function as a buffer between sectarian groups still suspicious of one another.So, how can we make diplomacy more effective?
It's true that fewer American combat troops are needed. . . . But the contributions of U.S. logistics people, advisors, air crews, intelligence collectors and other specialists continue to be as important as ever. It will be years before the Iraqis are able to take over some of these functions.