Iraq and US Strategy in the Gulf: Shaping US Plans after Withdrawal
October 24, 2011
President Obama’s announcement of a withdrawal of all US combat forces from Iraq by the end of 2011 will result in a major power vacuum in the region – and the Middle East abhors a vacuum. Officials from Jordan, Israel, and Saudi Arabia have all previously expressed reservations about Iranian involvement in Iraq, and it is clear that this withdrawal will give Iran increased leverage in the country. The US has invested immense sums of blood and treasure in Iraq, and to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory now would be major blunder. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad best summed this up in 2010: "Americans planted a tree in Iraq. They watered that tree, pruned it, and cared for it. Ask your American friends why they're leaving now before the tree bears fruit."
The Burke Chair in Strategy has just released a major report on the situation in Iraq, and what the withdrawal of US troops means for the country and the region. This report is entitled “IRAQ AND US STRATEGY IN THE GULF: Shaping US Plans After Withdrawal” and can be found at: http://csis.org/files/publication/111024_Iraq_US_Strategy_Gulf.pdf
There also is little doubt that the withdrawal of all combat forces from Iraq by the end of 2011 will increase the risk of failure. US commanders had previously estimated that 14,000-16,000 troops would need to remain in Iraq after 2011 in order to ensure stability and security. Now US commanders will have no combat forces at all. While many analysts may fault President Obama for an overly-rapid withdrawal, it appears that he had little choice. The US cannot keep troops in Iraq after 2011 without the consent of the Iraqi government, and that consent was not given.
The future of the US mission in Iraq is now largely in the hands of the State Department. Unfortunately, the State Department faces enormous challenges in Iraq, managing a $6.8 billion operation, with 16,000 or more personnel. Private security contractors will make up a majority of the personnel under State’s mission, and their presence is particularly sensitive to Iraqis. This will be the largest and most complex undertaking the State Department has managed in decades.
Unfortunately, the State Department has had major problems managing complex operations in Iraq and Afghanistan in the past, and these problems are only likely to grow. SIGIR has reported that they have no way of monitoring major contractor incidents, and are unlikely to develop such a system in the future. Yet they are now managing an unprecedented number of contractors, including a force of at least 5,000 private military contractors for base and convoy security. The fact that the US military will no longer be providing convoy security means that most State Dept. employees will stay on embassy or consulate grounds, and will rarely be able to go out into the field. The official US presence outside of a few major cities will be negligible.
These challenges would be immense under any circumstances, but the State Department also now also faces intense budgetary pressures. The overall State Department budget has recently been cut severely, and is likely to be cut more. The scale of their mission in Iraq post-2011 has already been downsized several times. Yet the US should be doing the exact opposite. Without US troops on the ground in Iraq, Congress should compensate by increasing the size and funding of the State Department mission there.
In response to President Obama’s announcement, in the coming months the US must also reshape its strategy and force posture relative to Iraq and the Gulf States. It must take account of its withdrawal of its forces from Iraq, and whether or not it can give real meaning to the US-Iraqi Strategic Framework Agreement. It must deal with steadily increasing strategic competition with Iran, it must restructure its post-Iraq War posture in the Southern Gulf and Turkey, and define new goals for strategic partnerships with the Gulf states and its advisory and arms sales activity. It must decide how to best contain Iran, and to work with regional friends and allies in doing so. In the process, it must also reshape its strategy for dealing with key states like Egypt, Jordan, Turkey and Yemen.
This strategy cannot simply be a military one or focus on national security. It must work with its friends and allies to deal with the impact of popular unrest that has already created a crisis in Bahrain, and which presents broad problems in the other Gulf states. It must deal with an explosive political and economic crisis in Yemen.
At the same time, the US must deal with political unrest and instability in Iran and the rest of Arab world -- particularly in Egypt and Jordan. The US must decide how to plan for the risk if some form of “axis” of Iranian influence develops that will potentially extend through Iraq and Syria to Lebanon, while also taking account of the fact that unrest in Iran and/or Syria could be a major strategic benefit to the US and greatly reduce the tensions in Lebanon.
The current crisis in Somalia, other parts of the Horn, and Yemen interact with problems in Egypt and the Sudan that create a new set of security needs in the Indian Ocean and Red Sea. The United States cannot focus on Iraq, Iran, and the Gulf alone. It must consider its broader strategic concerns in the UNCENTCOM area.
These issues include the rising tension over the Palestinian Authorities search for recognition as a state, and the full range of growing tensions between Israel, its Arab neighbors, and Turkey. It must do so in the context that the power projection capabilities of its traditional allies continue to drop, and this includes key partners in the region like Britain and France, while China is emerging as at least a critical economic presence.
This mix of challenges requires the US to decide on how to restructure its entire force posture in the Gulf and Middle East, and Turkey as it largely withdraws -- or leaves Iraq. It also, however, requires an integrated civil-military effort that goes far beyond the military dimension. For what may well be the next half-decade, the US will have to deal with a new, uncertain, and constantly changing mix of regimes and regional politics. It will need a civil-military strategy geared towards uncertainty and change.