June 28, 2009

Insecure about Iraq

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.

So it’s not like the current series of bombings is unexpected.  Certainly it’s not a good thing, but it’s also important not to overreact:

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.