May 02, 2008

The Senate Plays Chicken with the Sons of Iraq

Like Dr. iRack, you probably noticed that there was bipartisan outrage during the recent Petraeus/Crocker testimony over the tens of billions of dollars from windfall oil profits that the Iraqi government is not spending at a time when the war is costing U.S. taxpayers $10-12 billion a month. Some argue that this is due to a lack of Iraqi capacity to execute budgets; others attribute it to a lack of political will. We are about to put these two competing hypotheses to the test. According to today's Washington Post:

On a unanimous vote taken late Wednesday night and announced yesterday, the Senate Armed Services Committee approved legislation that would prohibit the Defense Department from funding any reconstruction or infrastructure program that costs more than $2 million.

Under the plan, Iraq also would have to pay to train and equip its security forces and provide the salaries of Sunni-dominated "Sons of Iraq" security groups. In addition, the administration would have to negotiate cost-sharing agreements for U.S.-Iraqi joint military operations, with an eye toward Iraq picking up the tab for items such as fuel.

Dr. iRack thinks it is a good idea to pressure the Iraqi government to pick up more of the tab, and favors conditioning other forms of security assistance on greater steps by the Maliki government to integrate and employ the Sons of Iraq--but unilaterally cancelling U.S. payments to these Sunni security volunteers initiates a risky game of chicken. If rationality prevails, it might incentivize the Maliki government to pick up the bill and speed up integration (as Marc Lynch and Brian Katulis and Ian Moss have argued), which is essential for long-term stability. Or it might cause the program to collapse, risking the reversal of one of the major reasons for improved security in Iraq.