Observations From a Visit to Iraq

Memorandum to General Odierno

Anthony H. Cordesman, the Arleigh A. Burke Chair in strategy at the CSIS, recently completed a survey trip to Iraq. The lessons and policy implications of this trip are described in detail in a memorandum to General Odierno and the country team in Iraq which is available on the CSIS web site at https://www.csis.org/analysis/observations-visit-iraq

Some key conclusions of the memorandum are:

There are continuing ethnic and sectarian threats and the US needs to do more to meet them:

We have not yet "won" in Iraq and we continue to face serious risks. Ninewa and Mosul remain challenges. Terrorist attacks continue and Americans and Iraqis still die. It seems clear that 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of AQI/ISI, FREs, Special Groups and other threats will continue to pose a challenge at some level even after we have withdrawn US forces in 2011.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.

Any visitor to today's Iraq can see, however, 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. Moreover, we have a remarkably skilled and adaptive US force to deal with the challenges we now face. The US military now has years of experience and multiple tours, and there is little an outsider can add at this point regarding the counterinsurgency phase of the struggle that has not already been tried and considered.

The threat posed by Iraqis politics and ethnic and sectarian divisions are a different story: Discussions with Iraqi Arabs, Iraqi Kurds, and US officers and officials in the north showed that the country team was all too correct in warning that we do not yet have victory in creating a stable and secure Iraq. 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 rising, and that patience is growing thin on both sides.

Iraqi Arabs 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 question then arises as to what, if anything, the US can do beyond the continuing political effort to halt such internal domestic conflicts before they begin 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 and 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 flexibly, and the 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 as to jeaprodize all that has been accomplished since the beginning of the surge.

 The US needs to look beyond near term goals and problems:

There does seem to be too much country team focus on events 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 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.

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 our forces, and the tasks we face if everything goes according to plan. We must have a 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.

There are serious gaps in the civil side of the Joint Campaign Plan:

The country team seems to have a far more solid picture of how to carry out a responsible military withdrawal, and of how to build up effective Iraqi forces, than of how to handle the civil side of the period from 2009-2012 and beyond. In general, there may be too much focus on the near term deadlines like withdrawal from the cities and the elections and too little focus on the out years. In the case of the civil side, there does not seem to be the level of attention to planning the future beyond the withdrawal from the cities and the election that will be required, or to the need to actively support immediate steps to reduce the economic and budget pressures on Iraq.

This does not mean that I was not impressed with the focus the PRTs had on creating jobs and building local economic stability, the work of AID and Treasury, and other civil efforts. What I did not see, however, was a cohesive strategy and plan to handle the transition to building up effective governance once the national election takes place, and a cohesive effort to push Iraq towards the level of economic reform and progress necessary to bring stability and development.

The civilian side seemed to focus on pursuing individual programs or efforts, sometimes in a stovepiped form. For some, it was creating immediate jobs. For some it was capability building, project aid, or monetary policy. In many cases, a transition was clearly taking place from using dollars as bullets, and from major aid spending, to helping Iraq help itself. However, this was sometimes being done on a target of opportunity basis or in ways which could take years to pay off -- if success was possible at all. There often seemed to be no clear relationship between good works and achieving the broader results necessary to ensure that Iraq could move towards successful government services and a more modern economy.

Washington needs to join the Country Team in focusing on the Strategic Agreement

No one can visit Iraq without seeing just how dedicated the country team is to building Iraq’s future at a time many Americans are turning away from US investment in Iraq as if the task was simply how to leave. We will be judged far more by the way we leave Iraq and what we leave behind than by the way we entered Iraq and how we fought the counterinsurgency campaign. Our goal should be to create an Iraq that is both fully independent and secure. This means creating a form of strategic partnership that can contain Iran without provoking it.

We  need to sustain the kind of relations with Iraq that can help build a nation  that is wealthy and secure enough to prevent further crises with Kuwait and Saudi Arabia. We need an Iraq that bridges over the sectarian tensions in the Arab world, rather than becomes another source of extremism or becomes a proxy to Iran or any other power. We need an Iraq that can reassure the Arab Sunni states, rather than lead to regional struggles between them and Iran in order to win influence over Iraq's Sunnis and Shi'ites.

Both the diplomatic and military sides of the country team already put the proper focus on these issues and on making the Strategic Agreement a central part of US policy, rather than simply focusing on "responsible withdrawal." It is not clear, however, that there is the same understanding in Washington that the Strategic Agreement is not simply a cover for US withdrawal, but a way of shaping US relations with Iraq that can help develop a strong and independent nation in the Gulf.

A successful implementation of the Strategic Agreement is also vital to creating a new and critical source of increased oil exports, as well as providing the revenues to both improve the lives of Iraqis and provide the financial "glue" that can help unify them. It is vital to bringing stability to a part of the Gulf that has been a source of conflict and tension ever since 1979.

Sustaining US Support: The Critical Need for New Forms of Reporting from the US Country Team

Americans will not make additional sacrifices in Iraq unless they are asked to make such sacrifices, are shown they are necessary, and are shown that US aid resources are being used far more effectively than in the past. Even the best civil-military effort in Iraq will only have meaning if it has the sustained support of the American people and the Congress, and suitable support from the media and various think thanks and other "influencers" of domestic public opinion. This is especially true at a time when the US is caught up in the "AfPak" conflict, a domestic/international financial crisis, Iran, North Korea, etc, etc.

The Congress, the media, need to understand that US operations in Iraq involves far more than simply leaving. They need to see what kind of phased effort is planned, what level of continued aid and spending is needed, why the Strategic Agreement and Status of Force Agreement are important and contingency action is needed, and what level of progress is being made.

They also need to be better prepared for reversals and the problems that can come, and to understand the limits to how much can be done in a given period of time. If I may criticize the positive nature of most current reporting, they need to be prepared for the risks. The proper communications strategy is to underpromise and overperform -- not the reverse. Some testimony, has had this frankness, but far too much of the formal reporting has not.

This does not require a change in what the country team is doing in Iraq, but it does requires a major change in the way the country team and USG communicates what is happening in Iraq and what needs to happen in the future. It is time to move from reporting on the situation to providing a clear public case for the JCP and the kind of continued US effort and funding that will be needed through at least 2011, and through 2014/2016 on the civil and military advisory level.

Accordingly, I would suggest that the Country Team makes the DoD Quarterly Report into a quarterly report on the overall level of progress being made to meet the goals set in the Joint Capabilities Plan (JCP) through 2012. This report should add a suitable risk assessment, which focuses on the transition to civil lead and from combat to a US military advisory role, and should show why various forms of aid are necessary and how they are being used.

The report will also need to transition to becoming a State or joint document as well as one that focuses on overall progress and goals to 2012 and beyond rather than current security developments. In the process, it should be kept on a quarterly basis to keep it the focus of media and political attention.

Anthony H. Cordesman

Anthony H. Cordesman

Former Emeritus Chair in Strategy