Iraq: ‘Mission Accomplished’ Mark II

Well, he did not wear a flight suit, stand on a carrier deck, or have a “Mission Accomplished” banner behind him. The fact remains, however, that President Obama did issue a second “mission accomplished statement on Iraq on August 18th, and one just as wrong and irresponsible as the one given by President Bush:


Today, I'm pleased to report that -- thanks to the extraordinary service of our troops and civilians in Iraq -- our combat mission will end this month, and we will complete a substantial drawdown of our troops...By the end of this month, 50,000 troops will be serving in Iraq. As Iraqi Security Forces take responsibility for securing their country, our troops will move to an advise-and-assist role. And, consistent with our agreement with the Iraqi government, all of our troops will be out of Iraq by the end of next year. Meanwhile, we will continue to build a strong partnership with the Iraqi people with an increased civilian commitment and diplomatic effort.


Political posturing is the norm in Washington, and claiming victory and an end to a war is far more popular than bearing the burden of leadership and dealing with reality. The Iraq War is not over and it is not “won.” In fact, it is at as critical a stage as at any time since 2003. Regardless of the reasons for going to war, everything now depends on a successful transition to an effective and unified Iraqi government, and Iraqi security forces that can bring both security and stability to the average Iraqi. The creation of such an “end state” will take a minimum of another five years, and probably ten.


Iraq still faces a serious insurgency, and deep ethnic and sectarian tensions. In spite of its potential oil wealth, its economy is one of the poorest in the world in terms of real per capita income, and it is the second year of a budget crisis that has force it to devote most state funds to paying salaries and maintaining employment at the cost of both development and creating effective security forces.


In spite of some grossly exaggerated projections of how quickly Iraq can expand its oil exports, it will be years before Iraq can overcome the impact of over 30 years of war and crisis. Moreover, the bulk of a massive international aid effort has either been wasted or consumed in dealing with the insurgency, and aid is phasing down to critically low levels at time Iraq lack both the funds and capability to replace aid or even take transfer of many aid projects.


Why the US Must Seek to Forge a Lasting Strategic Partnership with Iraq


There are many in America, including members of Congress, who would like to forget these strategic realities, and reduce or eliminate every aspect of the US role in Iraq as soon as possible. This already has already raised questions as to whether the US mission in Iraq, and State Department and Defense Department will get the support they need to create a real strategic partnership with Iraq.


It is true that the US cannot impose such a partnership on Iraq, and much depends on the formation of a new Iraqi government that wants such a partnership, serves the needs of all Iraqis, and shows it can govern effectively. The fact remains, however, that Iraq is a truly vital national security interest of the United States, and of all its friends and allies:


  • Iraq can play a critical role in limiting Iranian influence, and Iran’s ability to threat and intimidate its Gulf neighbors. A stable, friendly Iraq can help separate Iran and Syria, provide Turkey with a key alternative to economic involvement with Iran, show the Southern Gulf states that Iran cannot dominate the Northern Gulf or expand to the south, and help secure friendly states like Egypt, Israel, and Jordan.


  • A stable and secure Iraq will show that Sunni and Shi’ite can cooperate and defuse the threat of Sunni Islamic extremists and terrorists, as well as the kind of Shi’ite extremism supported by Iran. It can play a critical role in giving the Kurds the future they deserve and integrating the Kurds into region. If it receives continuing support from the US and the West, this will show that we are fighting extremism, not Arabs or Islam. It will play this role in a region of a far greater strategic interest to the US than Central and South Asia.


  • While the US Department of Energy is far more realistic about the rate at which Iraq can expand its oil production than Iraq’s Oil Ministry and various oil companies, it still projects Iraq will expand its oil production from 2.4 million barrels per day in 2008 to 2.6 in 2015, 3.1 in 2020, 3.9 in 2025, 5.1 in 2030, and 6.1 in 2035. This expansion is critical in offsetting declines in the production of other major exporting states, and could be substantially quicker in a more stable Iraq – reaching 6.3 MMBD in 2030 and 7.6 MMBD in 2035.


  • Iraq can play a key role in securing the entire Gulf, in cooperation with US forces and the forces of the Southern Gulf states. It plays a role in ensuring the stable flow of oil and gas exports throughout the region. Even using highly favorable projections of alternative fuels and liquids, the Department of Energy estimates that the Gulf will continue to increase its share of total world conventional and unconventional liquids production from 28% of all world production in 2008 to 31% in 2035. The Department estimates that this total could be as high as 35% by 2035.


Like all of his predecessors since the Ford Administration, President Obama has so far been more willing to deal with security issues than energy and global economics. It is all very well to talk about energy independence, and US politicians, academics, media, and think tanks have now been doing so for nearly four decades. The fact remains, however, that the latest Annual Energy Outlook ( and International Energy Outlook ( issued by the Department of Energy project that the US will not make any significant reduction in its strategic dependence on oil imports through 2035.


Moreover, these projections make no effort to measure the level of indirect imports that the US makes through its imports of manufactured goods from Europe and Asia – manufacturers in countries like China and Japan which are far more dependent on oil and gas imports from the Gulf and other exporting nations than the US.


The energy aspects of the US need for a strategic partnership with Iraq, and strong overall posture in the Gulf, is driven by two other factors:


  • First, it does not matter where the US get its oil from on any given day. The US competes in a world market driven by total world supply and pays world prices. If a crisis occurs in the Gulf, the US will compete at the same increase in prices as every other importing nation, if world price rise on a longer-term basis, the US will pay for the same increase, and if supplies are cut by a major conflict, the US must share the oil left for import with other OECD states.


  • Second, the US is steadily more dependent on the overall health of the global economy and the global economy is steadily more dependent on the stable flow of oil and gas exports. Oil prices are not simply a matter of increases in gasoline or home heating costs. They affect every job in America.


If one combines these strategic priorities with the need to deter and defend again Iran’s overall threat in the region, and aid all of our other allies to build their security in the face of the threat from terrorism and extremism, it is clear that we are several decades away from any ability to ignore Iraq or the needs of other friendly states.


Building A Lasting Strategic Partnership is the Only Way to Claim Any Kind of Success or “Victory” in this War


It is true that as much depends on next and future Iraqi governments as on the action of the US.  US now can only influence Iraq, not control it. Iraq is a fully sovereign state, its forces took effective control over virtually all security efforts in June, and the Iraqi people have deep reservations about the justification for US intervention in Iraq and over the way US aid and military operations have been handled since 2003. That said, there are many Iraqi officials and officers who have seen the US work with Iraq to end the insurgency, have seen the US rebuild Iraqi forces, and have seen successful aid programs. There are many Iraqi leaders and senior officers who realize that Iraq needs the US at least as much as the US needs Iraq. It is not popular for them to say so, but we already have a strategic partnership agreement and we are quietly working with a wide range of Iraqi leaders to make that agreement work if anything approaching a national and pragmatic Iraqi government comes to office.


President Obama should have concentrated on these realities. He should have made it clear that Iraq is still at least seven to ten years away from anything that can be called a stable “end state,” and decades away from full development.


He should have prepared Americans for the commitment they still need to make if Iraq is to succeed, and warned them that US forces are withdrawing from a country with a massive budget crisis, grossly inadequate quality of governance and rule of law, an economy crippled by 30 years of crisis and mismanagement, and with security force that are still some years away from the counterinsurgency capabilities they need and as much as decade away from building up all of the military forces they need to defend against threat like Iran. He should have been honest about Iraq’s near political paralysis, ongoing violence, and need for help in dealing with potentially explosive differences between Sunni and Shi’ite and Arab and Kurd.

The President should also have made it clear that announcing a formal end to an active combat role by US forces does not mean that the US will not act to provide military help it if Iraq’s government makes such a request. US combat forces will not leave Iraq before the end of 2011, and then only if the situation does not deteriorate to the point where the Iraqi government asks for help. The core of the 50,000 troops that remain in Iraq consists of six Advise and Assist Brigades (AABs) that have major combat capabilities. They are brigade combat teams that have been augmented with 50 additional officers and the units have received additional preparation to be trainers.  They will be able to shift to combat operations immediately if the Iraqi government should request this and the US President approves.

Yes, much depends on what Iraqis want and their view of such a partnership, but President Obama should have begun to prepare them and the American people and the Congress for the fact that the US can only succeed if is willing to make a lasting commitment to making a strategic partnership work. This requires a strong US presence in the Gulf after the US withdraws its combat forces from Iraq, and a US commitment to providing an advisory mission and FMS sales and aid until Iraq’s oil revenues are large enough for it to fund every aspect of its armed forces. It also requires hard decisions about funding a police training and advisory mission, and far more effective management of the State Department role in such an effort that has take place in any country to date.

Moreover, it will be at least half a decade before Iraq’s forces can defend Iraq from outside threats. US arms transfers and aid, and US security guarantees, can offer Iraq security during that period. US air and naval power can operate from other areas in the Gulf to conduct devastating attacks on any major force that tries to cross the Iraqi border. US training teams can continue to help Iraq build up all the elements of its security forces after US withdrawal in 2012. US FMS programs offer Iraq a way of obtaining full support for military modernization without corruption and with the required levels of support and sustainability.


Comparatively limited amounts of US economic aid can help speed economic development and improve the capacity and quality of Iraqi government. A strong State Department aid team can help Iraq shift away from a State-driven economy to a more mixed and open economy, and play a key role in showing Iraqis that there are strong economic reasons to avoid sectarian and ethnic tensions. A strong country team that mixes a major Embassy effort, active consulates in Basra and Arbil and smaller posts in Mosul and Kirkuk can provide the broad level of aid and support that will be critical long after a new Iraqi government is chosen, and probably for at least a half a decade after 2011. 


Iraq still needs help and aid in every aspect of development, a continuing diplomatic and civil effort to help Iraqis overcome their sectarian and ethnic tensions. Defining exactly what level of US support is needed, and Iraq will accept, must wait on the creation of a new Iraqi government and giving that new government the time it needs to make such decisions. It is already clear, however, that Iraq needs immediate aid in developing its capability for governance, and economy.


Why the US Must Maintain a Major Military presence in the Gulf: Facing the Broader Challenge

More broadly, the US cannot afford to leave the Gulf. It must be ready to make future military interventions and fight new conflicts to secure the region indefinitely into the future. The President has not announced his future plans for USCENTCOM, but these are as critical to our national security as a strategic partnership with Iraq. Leaving Iraq does not mean we are “going home.”

The US now has two major bases in Kuwait, a 5th Fleet headquarters in Bahrain, a massive air base in Qatar, and contingency facilities in Oman, the UAE, and Diego Garcia. It maintains a major military advisory mission in Saudi Arabia, and has close military ties to Turkey. It prepositioned brigade sets in Kuwait and Qatar before the invasion of Iraq in 2003, and has deployed an average of more than one carrier battle group and more than a combat wing of US fighters in the region since the mid-1980s. It can rapidly deploy additional ground forces, air and missile capabilities, naval forces, and missile defenses

Maintaining a major combat capability in the Gulf is as vital now as at any time in the last half century, and the US must maintain forces that can deter or defeat any conventional outside attack on Iraq if the US and Iraq are truly committed to a strategic partnership. If Iraq is to be stable, secure, and any kind of partner, the US must be able to provide airpower, intelligence, and emergency resupply to Iraqi forces for the counterinsurgency mission and rapidly deploy Special Forces to directly aid Iraqi troops.  It must provide as large or small a group of US military advisors as Iraq wants, and help Iraq acquire the major combat systems it will need over the next half decade to deter and defeat foreign threats on its own. This not only will directly aid Iraq, but help make Iraqi forces interoperable with key elements of US, Saudi, UAE, Kuwaiti, and other Southern Gulf forces.

We Need Leadership, Not Hollow Posturing

We did not need a second, vacuous “mission accomplished” speech. We do need the kind of firm and continuing Presidential leadership that makes it clear that precipitous US withdrawal, or Congressional cutbacks in State Department and Department of Defense aid and advisory plans will end any chance of an effective strategic partnership and lose the war by default. It will empower Iran, extremism, and terrorists throughout the region, and threaten all of our friends and allies.


In contrast, providing continuing civil and military support to Iraq during the critical transition period between 2010 and 2015 provide the US side of the effort necessary to build a lasting strategic partnership; help Iraq through a potential crisis in its budget, economy, and the development of the security forces it needs; and give the blood and dollars of the last seven years some kind of strategic value and meaning.