Progress in Iraq

The December Report on Measuring Stability and Security in Iraq

The attached report provides a detailed analysis of the strengths and weaknesses in the latest Department of Defense report on Measuring Stability and Security in Iraq. It sees valid reporting of many areas of progress, but also clear warnings that major risks and problems  remain.

In summary, one can argue the level of progress over the last year, and the situation in Iraq is certainly free of risk. There are, however, strong indicators that the glass has gone from one that was mostly empty to one that is at least half full. The latest Department of Defense report on Measuring Stability and Security in Iraq documents much of this progress, although it scarcely describes a stable or secure Iraq and it indicates that the Iraq War still presents a high risk of failure.

The report is not a strategy or plan for the future, and it continues to present events in a favorable light – although a detailed reading of the text reveals a steady growth in depth and objectivity. The report does, however, provide a definition of victory that seems increasingly achievable: “The strategic goal of the United States in Iraq remains a unified, democratic and federal Iraq that can govern, defend and sustain itself and is an ally in the war on terror.”

In practice, progress in each area of this definition of victory will probably be more limited that many hoped in going to war. Moreover, while the report does  not say so, success almost certainly requires sustained support from the US.  Iraq's role as an “ally in the war on terror” may also consist largely of denying international extremist groups any form of sanctuary on  its territory. Nevertheless, creating a relatively stable Iraq is a key strategic goal for the US in a region that dominates the world's oil reserves and oil  exports, and is a goal that seemed  far less possible at the beginning of the year.

There also are five areas where further progress will be necessary if the US can achieve its strategic goals, if success is possible at all, and each defines an area requiring years of sustained US effort:

  • US time, patience, and resources: The US needs to maintain a strategic relationship with Iraq that provides stable support for Iraqi security, accommodation, economic development, and the creation of effective governance over a period of at least three to five more years. This does not mean maintaining current US force and aid levels, or not making US support conditional on a realistic level of Iraqi progress. It does mean understanding that 2008 cannot be a decisive year in building stable accommodation, only a beginning. It means the US must not rush its force levels down to meet deadlines that ignore Iraqi security conditions, and it means sustained aid to Iraq in building its forces, governance, and economy. It also means that the US must forge some new consensus around a mid-term action plan for Iraq to carry it through a divisive election year and which can be sustained by the new Administration that comes to office in 2009.

  • Iraq political accommodation at the national, regional, and federal level: As the December report notes, progress is still slow in dealing with sectarian and ethnic divisions, and regional divisions within key sectarian and ethnic groups. Consolidating gains against Al Qa’ida in Iraq (AQI), as well as any lasting form of stability, requires accommodation between Iraqi Sunnis and Iraqi Shi’ites. Stability and security require accommodation between Arab, Kurds, and other minorities. Shi’ite-on-Shi’ite power struggles remain an equally important threat, as does the lack of any coherent power structure among Arab Sunnis and the various tensions between them. Intra-Kurdish tensions, Kurdish nationalism, and links to the PKK remain a threat as does potential regionalism such as creating a limited Shi’ite  federal enclave in the south. Major progress is both possible and necessary in 2008. Actually achieving more comprehensive and stable accommodation will probably have to be worked out over the next President’s term of office.

  • Creating effective Iraqi governance and services: Iraq governance remains  weak at every level and ineffective at many.  There is no agreement on a political structure that can lead to the creation of effective local and provincial governments, define Kurdish autonomy and the form federalism will take, or shape the tangible political structure of  accommodation  and  differences in governance by major sect and ethnic group and  in mixed areas. This process will take at least several years to  develop and  reach  some level of  stability.

  • Creating effective Iraqi security forces: The December report reflects real progress, but it is a level of  progress in the Iraqi Army that indicates it will take at least through 2009 to achieve some of the goals set for 2008. The report’s coverage of the police and other security forces is partial at best. The report does not  address the fact that  it will take additional years to create Iraqi military forces capable of defending Iraq. The data on progress in creating an effective  mix of National  police, local police, facilities  protection forces, and the security elements of “Concerned Local  Citizens” seem to reflect the devolution of the police from a nationally trained  and  equipped force to a locally and regionally dominated mix of police and local security forces with strong  sectarian, tribal, and ethnic elements.  Equally important, the report continues to describe progress in creating a rule of law in broad,  national terms, without describing the problems in creating effective courts, jails, and the  other instruments of law and criminal justice  at the local and regional level. It is unclear that real progress can be made in these areas before far more progress is made in accommodation, and it  may  well be three to five more years before a reasonably stable mix of police, courts, and a heavily “federalized” rule of law can  emerge.

  • Broadening the base of economic development: Most of the economic progress described in the report seems more illusory than real. Gains in oil revenues, massive wartime and aid spending, and recovering from an extremely low base may produce the appearance of macroeconomic progress, but macroeconomics  are likely to prove irrelevant until there is far more rapid job creation, and economic growth reaches broad levels of income distribution throughout the country, including the areas with serious violence or sectarian and  ethnic tensions. Iraq is not an exercise in classic economic development.  It is a challenge in terms of using dollars to replace bullets at the local  level  and in  ways that affect unemployed or poor Iraqis, especially young men.

It should be stressed that these issues are not an indication that  the US will fail  in Iraq, but rather that it must act consistently over time to prevent failure and achieve its  strategic  goals. It is equally important to stress that there is only so  much  the US can do, and it cannot give Iraqis a blank  check or try to sustain  its effort if  the risks outlined above make the US position untenable.

This analysis strongly argues that many of the Congressional  benchmarks and  implied deadlines issued to date  are  unrealistic goals  and  measures  of  success. At the same  time, this does not mean that the US should not establish more realistic goals  and steadily push the Iraqis to achieve them.

A strategic partnership requires both sides to be partners. So far, Iraq’s leaders have not been able to move forward  on their side  at the  rate required,  and victories  against AQI are not “victory.” Only  real progress in all of the  five areas outlined earlier – especially political accommodation – can  justify a continued US presence and sacrifices. Any major waves of sectarian  or ethnic violence, or the rise of new threats against  US  forces, could make that effort untenable.

Looking over the past year, the odds of success in achieving the US strategic goals in Iraq have probably increased from considerably less than even to slightly better than even, but only if both sides move forward and set realistic goals. The key at this point also seems to be much more substantial Iraqi progress towards political accommodation, both to win sustained US support and to lay the groundwork for a broad Iraqi belief that sustained progress is actually achievable.