Iraq: A Time to Stay?

The US Needs an Exit Strategy, Not Just an Exit

There may well be a case for accelerating some aspects of the US military withdrawal from Iraq. The present plan has an insurance plan built into the withdrawal schedule. It delays the start of further major reductions until after the Iraqi national election in early 2010, and then rushes them out before August. So far, things have gone better in Iraq than some anticipated. If this continues, it may well make sense to start reductions earlier. This would send a clear signal to all Iraqis that the US really is leaving, it would put less strain on the US forces in Iraq by carrying out a slower and steadier pace of withdrawals, and it would ease the overall strain on US forces of fighting two prolonged major regional contingencies.

However, an exit is not an exit strategy. US policy has to look at other considerations than simply when and how quickly it should remove its troops. It has do what it can to ensure that it leaves a stable and secure Iraq behind once its troops are gone; that US trainers and enablers continue to offer Iraq support; and that that it helps Iraq acquire the capabilities it needs to defend itself against any pressure from its neighbors.

US troops are scarcely the answer to all of Iraq’s remaining problems with internal security and political reconciliation. They do, however, plan a key role in damping down the tensions and potential clashes between Iraqi Arabs and Kurds. They still play a key role in helping Iraqi forces deal with Al Qa’ida in Iraq and other Sunni insurgent movements – which are still all too active in areas like Ninewa and Diyala. They help the Iraqi forces deal with the potential threat from Shi’ite militias, the Special Groups, and the extremist elements supported in part by Iran. This may not make them loved by the Iraqi people – and the vast majority of Iraqi Arabs want all US forces out as soon as possible – but it does make them a useful bridge that helps buy time until the Iraqi security forces are more equipped to do the job.

More broadly, President Obama will fail as a commander in chief, and his Administration will fail with him, if he does not manage US military withdrawals in a way that creates a sustained effort to help Iraq move towards lasting stability at the political, economic, and military levels. The challenge is not just getting US forces out. It is make the transition to a civilian lead that is backed by an adequate mix of civil aid in governance and development, and a training mission that will help Iraq become truly independent – not only of US forces but in dealing with the ambitions of all its neighbors.

The Changing Challenge to Iraqi Security

Any visitor to today's Iraq can see that violence has been sharply reduced, that US and Iraqi forces have done much to meet the mix of remaining threats, and that Iraqi forces are making real progress. At the same time, any planning for US troop withdrawals must consider the reality that the US and ISF have not yet "won" in Iraq, and they continue to face serious risks.

Ninewa and Mosul remain challenges. Major terrorist attacks continue and Iraqis and Americans and Iraqis. Various violent elements of AQI/ISI, FREs, Special Groups and other threats will continue to pose a challenge at some level even after we have withdrawn US forces in 2011. It seems equally clear that Iraq will face challenges and pressure from its neighbors, particularly Iran.

Moreover, the sharp reductions in Sunni Jihadist threats and in Shi’ite threat like the Sadr Army have exposed deep internal tensions in Iraq that create the threat of a different kind of violence.

The main challenges to Iraqi security are becoming Iraq's political divisions and ethnic and sectarian tensions. As every briefing from our country team made clear, the US faces major challenges in the Arab-Kurdish struggle, and from Iraq's remaining sectarian tensions.

The Kurdish Challenge

Finding a stable solution to Arab-Kurdish relations, and solving the problems created by the disputed areas in the north is critical to Iraq's future. It is clear that tensions between Arab and Kurd are rising, and that patience is thin on both sides. The UN-US effort to find a solution to the Arab-Kurd issue has become a critical priority, and one where changes in the UN team seem to have occurred at precisely the wrong moment. The 502-page UN report on Arab-Kurdish disputes that was issued this spring did little more than map the exact scale of differences and polarize Arab, Kurd, and Turcoman. The US military has had to intervene at least three times to ensure that fighting did not break out between each side in the dispute areas, and both Kurdish and Arab leaders seem to be becoming more rigid over time.

Arab-Kurdish tensions in Ninewa and Kirkuk, and throughout out the disputed areas, are part of an explosive situation that will require an extraordinary diplomatic effort by the US, UN, and other outside powers. The risk of an open break between the two sides, serious clashes, or a major outbreak of fighting are all too real. They are going to require at least several years of careful attention by steadily declining US forces to do everything possible to head off clashes that could escalate far beyond the intent of either side.

The Kurds will need a sustained US diplomatic and military effort to persuade them to be realistic, to look beyond history and geography, and to look beyond the gains they made during the period immediately after 2003 because the Arab side was then so weak. They need to accept practical compromises and do so a quickly as possible, before a new legacy of tension and anger makes such compromise steadily more difficult.

Iraqi Arabs will need a similar ongoing effort to persuade them to pay more attention to achieving national unity, rather than exploiting the Kurdish issue to score domestic political points in their own internal power struggles or focusing on Arab identity to the exclusion of national unity. They need to remember that the Kurds have legitimate reason to seek some degree of autonomy, to focus on the protections offered by the constitution, and to want Iraqi Security Forces to be structured in a way that gives the Kurds some guarantee of security and ensures that Kurdish officers have a fair share of command.

The Sectarian Challenge

At the same time, Sunni-Shi'ite tensions pose serious challenges on their own. Most Iraqi Arabs seem fed up with violence and extremism. They want peace, good government, development, and progress. Iraqi Arab politics, however, threaten to divide Iraqis along lines of sectarian and regional interest. The struggle to win the coming national election already has primacy, and it is clear that the tensions between Prime Minister Maliki and the CoR are growing.

Iraq’s Sunni Arabs increasingly distrust what they see as Maliki's effort to expand his power and political support at the expense of Sunnis, and what they see as a form of de-Baathifcation that sharply favors Shi'ites while continuing to limit or push out Sunnis from both the government and ISF. Shi'ites made it clear that they fear the resurgence of both elements in both politics and the ISF.

These problems are compounded by the internal fragmentation of Sunni and Shi'ite politics at every level. There still are no Sunni political parties that have demonstrated that they can speak for Sunnis at the national level, and the past Shi'ite coalition is fragmenting along pro and anti-Maliki lines. This could lead to local violence, and trigger tensions within the Shi'ites and Sunnis that could suddenly flare up into major violence.

The US Response

The question then arises as to what, if anything, the US can do to halt such internal domestic conflicts before they begin, beyond continuing the political and military effort that the country team already has underway . Iraq is now sovereign, and many forms of military intervention can do as much or more harm than good.

One answer – although it may be unpopular in Washington – lies in carefully targeted aid. The US should not phase out aid too quickly in the areas with there are ethnic and sectarian fault lines. Limited amounts of aid can be used to enhance dialog, to try to bridge differences, and to lever the kind of positive action that can bring various sides together. The Embassy needs the resources and flexibility to use such tools quickly, and then to enhance negotiations as well as provide more conventional types of aid. The Administration and the Congress need to understand that the past mistakes in the aid effort, and current financial pressures, are not a rationale for cutting aid so quickly and so severely that it jeopardizes all that has been accomplished since the beginning of the surge.

As for the US military, it needs to make use of every possible intelligence asset to be able to avoid clashes between elements of the ISF and other factions. The key, however, lies in military assistance. There is tremendous pressure to downsize such US efforts as part of US withdrawals, but there are still be good reasons to keep the military advisory and aid efforts at higher levels than are currently planned, and to give these efforts more focus on healing Iraq’s internal divisions as distinguished from dealing with its security problems. Some of this effort is already underway, but added CERP and other military aid could be used to reduce these tensions and help keep ISF development on track in critical areas – and help bridge over the impact of Iraq's current budget crisis and provide US advisers with leverage in incentivizing the ISF to use its own resources effectively.

Arab-Kurdish tensions must be a central focus of both diplomatic and military attention. The US is already making efforts to try to keep the ISF from becoming polarized along Arab-Kurd lines, but these efforts may need added assets, and the US may need to rethink past plans in supporting the expansion of the Iraqi Army.

The plan to create largely Kurdish 15th and 16th Divisions may now be financially and politically impossible, but some form of this option still seems highly desirable. Having largely Kurdish forces within the Iraqi Army still seems a good way to integrate a Pesh Merga that now totals nearly 190,000 men into a smaller force that is both national and offers the Kurds some degree of security. The US might also consider making it clear that the level of US military aid and assistance will vary with the degree to which Kurdish officers are not pushed out of senior command positions and Kurds are integrated into all of the elements of the ISF.

More broadly, US military advice and aid provide a powerful tool in trying to prevent the ethnic and sectarian polarization of the ISF, and in making it national and professional. It may be tempting to downsize this effort too quickly, to eliminate or reduce aid too much, or to focus on securing withdrawal. The US must resist this temptation. It should seek to maintain as strong a military aid effort as possible through 2011, and to institutionalize such an effort in 2012 and beyond. It is clear in talking to members of the ISF that most senior Iraqi officers want such aid and recognize that it is needed. It is also clear that Iraqi officers do see the need for a national, rather than polarized, ISF and that working with them can be a powerful force in developing Iraqi unity.

Planning for the Longer Term and Emerging Risks, Not Just For Withdrawal

There does seem to be too much country team focus on events up to the election. Both the country team and Washington needs to react to the "threat" posed by a combination of Iraqi politics, remaining internal tensions, and a combination of economic and budget pressures interacting with internal rivalries and rising expectations. Rather than a worst-case revival of violence, the US may face an election whose results are as divisive as unifying, pressures to make the Prime Minister a "president" or strong man, or a government too divided to be effective.

There is also some risk that the election will coincide with a "perfect storm" in the form of a continuing budget crisis and limited oil export income, the phase out of significant grant aid, problems in the quality of government services and budget execution, and the natural desire of Iraqis to improve their lives after years of violence and poverty.

If the election does move Iraq towards successful governance, unity, and development, the key to future US success will increasingly be diplomacy and civil programs, not the use of the US military or the ISF. It is critical, however, that we explicitly plan for other contingencies, and do not prematurely see the election as anything other than one more uncertain milestone in a process that will take a decade or so to complete. We need to preserve a sense of urgency in executing both our civil and military efforts well beyond 2011.

The key US mission is not responsible withdrawal, or to put the Iraqis in the lead, important as these elements of the US mission are. It is to execute a transition over the period up to 2011, and beyond, that will create as strong and independent an Iraq as possible and one that will be a strategic partner that serves both its own interests and the need to bring security and stability to the Gulf.

There will be nothing but "critical" periods for the US military advisory effort between now and the end of 2011 -- and for several years beyond. The ISF transition to both domestic peacetime security and rule of law and to being able to defend the country against foreign threats will require as much help as we can possible give them. This also is not a task we can dodge by claiming premature success or shifting the burden to NATO or any other allies. Either the US side of the effort will succeed, or the Iraqi side will fail. Our sustained success in Iraq will hinge on how well we replace massive US forces with an effective and lasting US advisory effort and the level of military aid we continue to provide once our combat forces are withdrawn in 2011 and after 2011.

This makes it critical to avoid focusing too much on managing the withdrawal of US forces, and the tasks the US face if everything goes well. It must have as good a set of contingency plans and options for dealing with serious crises -- particularly because our ability to intervene and our leverage will steadily diminish with time as our forces drop and Iraqi politics dominate events.

Once again, some of this planning is already underway in the US team in Iraq. What is not clear is how much of the planning is complete or its depth and priority. It also seems to be conducted in a climate where there is so much concern over asking for added aid resources from the Administration and Congress, or more strategic patience in sustaining the US civil and military advisory effort, that the need for a exit is consistently given priority over an exist strategy.

What the US needs is an integrated civil-military plan that is truly operational - one that clearly describes the actions to be taken, the time scales needed, the resources required, and the estimate benefits, risks, and measures of effectiveness that will give such a plan meaning. This requires a major modification in past joint campaign plans that shows how the State Department will take over the lead from the US military; and that shows how the US will deal with a shift to Iraqi leadership and control in every important aspect of civil-military plans.

It also requires a kind of leadership in the Obama Administration that so far has been as badly lacking as during the Bush Administration. Strategies are only meaningful to the extent they are actually made operational actually given resources, and demonstrate progress in terms of value measure of effectiveness. The Bush Administration never understood this in fighting either in Iraq or Afghanistan. In the case of Iraq, it was rescued by pressure and analysis from the outside the Administration, and by a unique country team effort led by Ambassador Crocker and General Petraeus.

The first 100 days of Obama are long over, and Iraq now seems to only have half a country team in the form of MNF-I and General Odierno. The State Department is strong on bluster, but remarkably silent on clear plans for action. It talked about reform of AID and the US aid effort and then fell silent. The Joint Chiefs, Secretary of Defense, and NSC have not even bothered to bluster. If they have clear policy goals, anything approach a strategy, and any real concern for providing the resources actually needed, they have achieved a far higher level of stealth than any of their predecessors.

For a Powerpoint analysis of the key risks Iraq faces in terms of fracture lines and continuing divisions, see