Iraq’s Fracture Lines

Recidivism or Reassertion

There may well be a case for accelerating some aspects of the US military withdrawal from Iraq. The present plan has an insurance factor built in to the withdrawal schedule. It delays the start of major further 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 a slower and more steady pace of withdrawals, and it would ease the overall strain on US forces of fighting two prolonged major regional contingencies.

But, 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 to consider what it can do to ensure a stable and secure Iraq is left behind once its troops are gone. It has to ensure that that US trainers and enablers offer Iraq continuing support; and that the US helps Iraq acquire the capabilities it needs to defend itself against any pressure from its neighbors.

The way the US phases down its forces also remains an important issue. US troops are scarcely the answer to all of Iraq’s remaining problems with internal security and political reconciliation. They do, however, play 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 the remaining US presence popular the Iraqi people – and polls show that 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 ready to do the job.

More broadly, President Obama will fail as a commander in chief, and his Administration will fail with him, if he manages US military withdrawals in a way that fails to create a sustained civil and advisory 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 making the transition to a civilian lead that is backed by an adequate US mix of civil aid in governance and development It is creating a military 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

One also has to be careful about assessing risk in terms of the military capabilities of Iraqi security forces without considering Iraq’s internal political situation. 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 the Sunni Jihadist threat and in Shi’ite threats like the Sadr Army have exposed deep internal tensions in Iraq that may cause a different kind of violence.

But, this is only part of the story. The main challenges to Iraqi security have become Iraq's political divisions and its broader 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

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 is 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 as 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.

Finding a stable solution to Arab-Kurdish relations, and to 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 serious, and that patience is thin on both sides.  The recent meetings between Maliki and Barzani may help, as may the new efforts at dialogue begun in the last week. It is dangerous, however, to assume that this new dialogue will ultimately be any more successful than the last, and each failure raises tensions on both sides.

Keeping a military advisory presence gives the US some leverage in damping these tensions down until Iraqis can find a lasting solution. More broadly, making every effort to strengthen UN-US diplomacy in ways that can help Iraqis  find a solution to the Arab-Kurd issue has become a critical priority, and one where changes in the UN team seem to  be occurring 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 disputed areas, and both Kurdish and Arab leaders seem to be becoming more rigid over time.

The Sectarian Challenge

At the same time, Sunni-Shi'ite tensions pose serious challenges of 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, other political factions, and some elements of  the CoR are growing.

Iraq’s Sunni Arabs increasingly distrust what they see as Maliki's efforts 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. Many Shi'ites make it clear that they fear  both Maliki’s “presidentialism” and efforts to become a stronger and more authoritative leader and the resurgence of the Ba’ath in both politics and the ISF.

These Sunni-Shi’ite 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. While Sadr and the JAM are fare weaker than a year ago at the military level, Sadr remains a serious political force and the ruling Shi'ite coalition has fragmented 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 Needed US Response

This highlights the need to have an exit strategy rather than simply an exit. The US needs an integrated civil-military strategy for dealing with Iraq that makes a well-organized and sustained political and military effort to halt such internal domestic conflicts before they begin. The US country team already has such efforts underway at both the diplomatic and military levels, but it is dealing with minimal funding and an Administration and a Congress that puts far more emphasis on the exit than on strategy.

The US needs to find more ways to help Iraq move towards lasting security and stability. 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 where there are ethnic and sectarian fault lines. Limited amounts of aid can be used to enhance dialog, try to bridge differences, and 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 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 to jeopardizes all that has been accomplished since the beginning of the surge.

This is not the time to cut the US Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT) effort, centralize US efforts in Baghdad, or avoid setting consulates up in the KRG or other troubled areas. The US must not undermine the central government or compete with it, but active US aid efforts at the provincial and local levels can help create jobs and stability, aid the transition to a civil rule of law, aid Iraqis in improving government services, and work with Iraqis to deal with the critical remaining problems in industry, services, agriculture, and infrastructure.  Much will depend on Iraqi willingness to accept such aid, but the US should not phase down its civil programs simply because it is withdrawing its military forces.

As for the US military, it needs to make use of every possible intelligence asset, and remaining degree of influence it still possesses,   to prevent clashes between elements of the ISF and other factions. The key lies in preserving a strong military advisory team and some forms of military assistance.

The ISF’s 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 US help as Iraqis are willing to accept. This also is not a task the US 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. Sustained  US 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 the US continues to provide once its combat forces are withdrawn in 2011.

There is pressure in Washington to downsize such US efforts as part of withdrawals, but there are still be good reasons to keep the military advisory and aid effort 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 to 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.

The Stability and Security Force of a US Exit Strategy

Arab-Kurdish tensions must be a central focus of both this 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 advisory teams and aid  should be used to help prevent the ethnic and sectarian polarization of the ISF, and in making it national and professional. It may be tempting to downsize the US military aid  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.

Mission Unaccomplished: Planning for the Longer Term and Emerging Risks, Not Just For the Election and Withdrawal

There are problems in the US country team effort as well as in Washington, There does seem to be too much country team focus on events leading up to the election. Both the country team and Washington need 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 both the US country team and Washington 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. The US needs to preserve a sense of urgency in executing both our civil and military efforts well beyond 2011.

A US exit strategy must be based on the reality that there currently is no foreseeable point at which the US can declare “mission accomplished” if it wants lasting strategic results. Iraq faces too many internal and external challenges. There  will be nothing but "critical" periods for the US military advisory effort between now and the end of 2011 – and then for at least for several years beyond.

This makes it important to avoid focusing too much on managing the withdrawal of US forces, and the tasks the US faces 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.

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 rather to execute a coordinated US effort to 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. This effort has no magic time limit. It will be needed for as many years as it takes, although Iraqi progress can steadily reduce its scale and cost over time.

The Need for a Truly Operational and Integrated Civil-military Effort

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 valuable measures 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 outside the Administration, and by a unique country team effort led by Ambassador Crocker and General Petraeus.

The first 100 days of the Obama Administration 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 full analysis of these issue, see:

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

Anthony H. Cordesman

Anthony H. Cordesman

Former Emeritus Chair in Strategy