The Magazine

The Endgame in Iraq

As the baton is passed to a new commander and a new president, there is still delicate work to be done.

Sep 22, 2008, Vol. 14, No. 02 • By FREDERICK W. KAGAN, JACK KEANE and KIMBERLY KAGAN
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But American brigades do more than that. They also give us leverage at every level to restrain malign actors within the Iraqi government and to insist that Iraqi leaders make concessions and take political risks they would rather avoid. The notion, popular in some American political discussions, that withdrawing our forces increases our leverage is nonsensical. The presence of 140,000 American troops on the ground in Iraq requires the Iraqi leadership to pay attention to America's suggestions in a way that nothing else can. Every brigade that leaves reduces our leverage just when we need it most.

For all the progress made to date, the next president will face significant challenges in Iraq. In recent testimony, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates enumerated them: "the prospect of violence in the lead-up to elections, worrisome reports about sectarian efforts to slow the assimilation of the Sons of Iraq into the Iraqi security forces, Iranian influence, the very real threat that al Qaeda continues to pose, and the possibility that Jaysh al-Mahdi could return."

The existence of malign sectarian actors in the Iraqi parliament and in the prime minister's inner circle is not news. Nor is it news that Iraqi politicians, elected under a closed-list system that emphasized ethnosectarian identity at the expense of political interest, have weak electoral bases and much reason to fear the results of open and honest elections. It is similarly well known that Iran seeks to drive the United States out of Iraq and has been putting tremendous pressure on Iraq's leaders to obey Tehran and reject Washington. These three factors help explain the development of significant negative trends in Iraq in recent months: the downward spiral of negotiations over the Strategic Framework Agreement, delays in the passage of an electoral law, escalating tensions along the Arab-Kurd border, and Iraqi government attacks on certain Sons of Iraq groups in and around Baghdad.

American errors have contributed to these developments. At the outset of negotiations over the Strategic Framework Agreement, for instance, we should have offered Iraq a security guarantee. Iraq's signing a Strategic Framework Agreement would have openly and publicly committed themselves to the United States--and against Iran, in the zero-sum thinking of Tehran. It was only reasonable that Maliki and others in the Iraqi government should have expected an American commitment to match their own, and we should have given it to them. But American domestic politics made that impossible.

Leading congressmen and senators insisted that a security guarantee would raise the Strategic Framework Agreement to the level of a treaty requiring Senate ratification--which is true. They also made clear that no such ratification would be forthcoming if the document bound the next administration. The Bush administration therefore had to tell Baghdad at the outset that America would not match the commitment we were asking the Iraqis to make with an equal commitment of our own. American domestic politics also prevented the administration from placing the security agreement in the larger context of a U.S.-Iraqi strategic partnership, since that concept was ridiculed by those who refused to accept the possibility of success in Iraq.

The Iranians sensed an opportunity and responded with a massive public information campaign in Iraq and a virulent private campaign to put pressure on Iraq's leaders. America's refusal to offer a long-term security guarantee gave weight to the constant Iranian refrain that Iran will always be there, while America will ultimately leave Iraq to its fate. Shrewdly refusing to admit the degree of direct Iranian pressure, Maliki and his associates used the cloak of "Iraqi sovereignty" to conceal their uneasiness at taking responsibility for making a deal with the United States--uneasiness not before their own people, but before Tehran. As a result, the negotiations have dragged on, Iraqi demands have increased, and it is possible that Maliki will now wait until after the American election to see who wins--all because domestic political constraints prevented the Bush administration from making the necessary opening bid.

Maliki has been using "Iraqi sovereignty" to do more than delay those negotiations, however. He has also used it to insist on the accelerated transfer of Iraq's cities, especially Baghdad, to Iraqi control and the withdrawal of American forces from those cities. As a result, the problems that premature transition can cause are on display in the city of Baquba, the capital of Diyala Province northeast of Baghdad.