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.
Diyala has always been one of the most challenging provinces in Iraq because of its swirling mix of Kurds with Sunni and Shia Arabs and its proximity to Baghdad. It served in the past as a staging area for Shia militias and al Qaeda terrorists launching attacks in Baghdad. It was pacified in 2007 with a great deal of hard fighting that resulted in the defeat of illegal Shia militias and the capitulation of the local Sunni insurgent groups, many of whom joined the Sons of Iraq, volunteer security forces organized and initially paid by the United States. More remained to be done in Diyala as the surge ended, however. Surge operations had cleared Baquba and areas further east, but not the rim of the province from Khanaqin along the Iranian border and then through Balad Ruz toward Baghdad. The end of the surge meant the withdrawal of significant American forces from Diyala, so U.S. troops largely turned responsibility for the city of Baquba over to the Iraqis and moved out to clear the peripheral areas of the province.
Rumors began circulating that the Iraqi government believed it would have to re-clear Baquba, even though violence remained low and American leaders did not agree. In August 2008, the Iraqi security forces, with limited support from American troops, did re-clear the city--but their targets were primarily leaders in the Sons of Iraq movement and members of the local government and community that had supported them. This action--which could not have taken place if American forces had continued to patrol the city--was part of a larger effort by Maliki to weaken the urban Sons of Iraq. It appears that the current Iraqi leadership has recognized that it must allow the Sunni tribal movements, particularly in Anbar, to organize and gain power in their own communities, but it sees the urban Sons of Iraq movements as political threats to its power.
The return of the Sunni Iraq Islamic party (IIP) to the government appears to have created an unholy alliance between Maliki and IIP leader (and Iraqi vice president) Tariq al-Hashimi aimed at weakening grassroots Sunni political movements in and around Baghdad and ensuring that the unpopular and unrepresentative IIP continues to wield power after provincial elections. A similar alliance is operating in Ninewa Province, where Kurdish leaders appear to have joined with the IIP to ensure that they will continue to have influence in the largely Arab province when provincial elections eliminate the current disproportionate Kurdish sway in the provincial government. This Kurdish-IIP alliance helps explain why there are virtually no Sons of Iraq in Ninewa. The extremely limited American presence in Ninewa, as in Baquba, has enabled these developments, which may call into question the legitimacy of the upcoming provincial elections in some areas.
Maliki's actions may reflect the continued powerful influence of malign sectarian actors among his advisers, or it may reflect the determination of a temporarily strong political leader confronting elections that are likely to weaken his base. The specter of Iranian power combines with the enormous question mark hanging over the future of American support to make Maliki look to his own resources to stabilize his position. Again, contrary to conventional wisdom, the threat of American withdrawal and America's refusal to guarantee the security of Iraq and its constitutional processes presses Iraq's leaders to make bad decisions, not good ones.
Whatever Maliki's motivations, however, the bottom line is clear. Although a dramatic increase in violence or the rebirth of a large-scale Sunni insurgency in the next six months is unlikely, it is possible that American policies are combining with Iraqi mistakes to undermine the long-term prospects for success. These trends can be reversed, with care, over the coming months if the United States can summon some strategic patience.
There is no question that we should be able to start withdrawing significant numbers of American forces from Iraq in 2009 and accelerating our withdrawal in 2010. Assuming that Iraqi provincial elections in 2008 or early 2009, and parliamentary elections in 2009 or 2010, are accepted as legitimate by the Iraqi people and the international community, it is also highly likely that we can continue to withdraw from Iraq's cities, including Baghdad, and move from a patrolling role to an advisory and support role in the same period. But the timing of force reductions and withdrawals from urban areas is critical, and the current pace is too fast.
It appears from media reports that General Petraeus initially proposed no reduction in the number of U.S. brigades below the pre-surge levels, and that was certainly the right recommendation. Current force levels may, in fact, already be too low. At all events, we must see Iraq through the upcoming two elections, pressing the government to conduct them fairly and inclusively as well as ensuring that enemy groups do not disrupt them with violence. Doing so requires a significant American presence on the ground in Iraq's population centers, where, in addition to all the other key non-combat roles they play, American soldiers are the canaries in the mine shaft. They know before anyone else when Iraqi leaders at any level are starting to play games that can undermine mission success.
We should therefore not withdraw any brigades from Iraq before the provincial elections have occurred and the results have been certified and accepted. We should not accept timelines for the departure of American troops from Iraq's cities, particularly Baghdad, before the parliamentary elections of 2009. We should continually press the Iraqi government not simply to pay the Sons of Iraq (as it has announced it will do beginning in October), but to bring most of them into the political process. Some of the Sons of Iraq were leaders of the insurgency and should have no place in Iraqi politics, but in its Baquba operation, the Iraqi government was not sufficiently discriminating in whom it sought to exclude (much less detain). We must also support the Iraqi government in its efforts to push Kurdish militias out of Diyala and Ninewa provinces.
This is not a matter of Iraqi sovereignty. American troops will not stay anywhere in Iraq if ordered by the Iraqi government to leave. We are not going to depose Maliki or retake control of Baghdad. We are not going to force the Iraqis to do anything. And, above all, we are not going to maintain a large military presence in Iraq indefinitely. But we are engaged in continual negotiations with the Iraqi government about what our forces will do and what Iraqi forces will do, and we have tremendous leverage in those negotiations.
For too long, we have allowed domestic American political considerations to reduce our leverage and weaken our bargaining position, and we have refused to recognize the critical role the presence of our combat forces plays in keeping us in the game at all. When America provides combat forces to maintain internal or external security in a foreign state, it acquires the right to bargain hard for what it thinks is best for the common interest, even when the host state's government does not agree. We have engaged in such hard bargaining in South Korea and in Europe, and it is a normal part of alliance relationships. We must bargain harder in Iraq and give ourselves the tools and leverage we need to succeed.
Above all, we must recognize that there is never a glide path in war. As long as the outcome remains in doubt, we must never imagine that the situation is under control and we can put it on autopilot and ignore it. The relief of getting Iraqi violence under control and American casualties down turns naturally into a desire to declare victory and withdraw. That is a danger to be avoided at all costs. This administration must ensure that it hands its successor not only a relatively peaceful Iraq, but an Iraq that is headed in the right direction.
General Jack Keane (USA, Ret.) is the former vice-chief of staff of the Army. Frederick W. Kagan, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, is a contributing editor to THE WEEKLY STANDARD. Kimberly Kagan is president of the Institute for the Study of War.