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As We Stand Down, Can They Stand Up?

Iraq still needs close attention from the United States.

Nov 16, 2009, Vol. 15, No. 09 • By MAX BOOT
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Coping with all these threats, while trying to stimulate a battered economy that remains almost totally dependent on oil, is taxing the anemic capabilities of the Iraqi government to their limit and beyond. American units assist the Iraqis not only with security operations but with basic governance tasks as well. In Mosul, for instance, the 3rd Brigade Combat Team, 1st Cavalry Division, presented me with a complicated-looking PowerPoint slide headlined "Trash Nodal Analysis" laying out what troops are doing to get garbage picked up. Such projects employ thousands of young Iraqi men who might otherwise be tempted to accept money from terrorist groups.

An even more important role is being played by the 1st Cavalry Division's 2nd Brigade Combat Team in Kirkuk, an oil-rich province that is claimed by Arabs, Kurds, and Turkmen. These U.S. troops serve as a buffer between the Iraqi Army, which is garrisoned in the southern part of Kirkuk, and the Kurdish peshmerga militia in the north. When Iraqi leaders in Baghdad decided to send an army battalion into Kirkuk city--currently controlled by a police force led by a well-respected Kurdish general--U.S. authorities talked the Iraqis out of a move that would have exacerbated tensions and could even have led to shooting. Colonel Ryan Gonsalves, commander of the 2nd Brigade, spends a good deal of time enhancing communications between Arabs and Kurds, going so far as to invite Iraqi Army and peshmerga commanders to lunch on his base. The two sides would never have talked were it not for American arbitration. Plans are now being laid for joint patrols between U.S. troops, Iraqi Army soldiers, and the peshmerga to keep the peace in Kirkuk and other volatile areas of the north where tensions could flare out of control at any moment.

U.S. commanders in Baghdad count a total of 1,400 different tasks being carried out by their troops. They are trying to move many of these projects to the State Department, but the U.S. embassy has only 1,400 personnel (most of them performing administrative and support functions) housed in a new university-style campus in the Green Zone. There is no way they can perform the vast majority of tasks carried out by 117,000 troops especially because they are themselves reliant on military support which will rapidly shrink over the course of the next year. "There is no there there," one diplomat told me of the State Department operations as he described how the number of Provincial Reconstruction Teams is due to fall from 19 to just 6 or 7 next year.

Making the situation even more problematic is the possibility that some Foreign Service officers will start to view a posting in Iraq as a normal embassy assignment, where the primary task is to report on, rather than to exercise influence over, local developments. Such a hands-off mindset could create trouble down the road. But U.S. diplomats seem to be getting the message: They have been intimately involved in pushing Iraqis to reach agreement on a new election law that has been held up by disputes over the status of Kirkuk and whether to adopt an "open list" system that would disclose the identity of the parliamentary candidates fielded by each party.

But much more remains to be done. It is important not only to achieve a smooth handoff from U.S. to Iraqi forces but also to lay the foundations for a future U.S.-Iraqi strategic partnership that could become a pillar of stability in the Middle East. There is talk of a post-2011 U.S. military training mission here and joint U.S.-Iraqi exercises such as the biennial Bright Star exercise the United States conducts with Egypt and other allies. Sales of U.S. military equipment are in the pipeline. If F-16s are sold, as the Iraqis want, they will then be reliant on U.S. spare parts and support for many years to come. On the cultural side, it would make sense to bring more Iraqi students to the United States and possibly even establish a new American University in Baghdad like its predecessors in Cairo and Beirut.

But few of these ideas have been fleshed out, and they won't be until Iraq inaugurates a new government, which may not happen for many months after the elections scheduled for January. (Few politicians expect Nuri al Maliki to remain prime minister even though he is the most popular leader in Iraq: He has made too many enemies in the other political parties.)

But it is not just the Iraqi side that is holding up the steps needed to lay a firm foundation for Iraqi-American relations in the future. There is also a sense that the Obama administration isn't making Iraq a priority. Ironically, one of the few bright spots is Joe Biden, who as a senator turned against the war and sponsored an outlandish plan to break up Iraq into three parts. As vice president he has been a more positive influence as the administration's point man on Iraq, virtually the only high level official who appears to be paying attention to events here. The problem is that the administration's emphasis is on leaving, not on ensuring that the country we leave behind will be peaceful, strong, and democratic in the future. The president has even dropped talk of a democratic Iraq in favor of a "self-reliant" Iraq. Nor do U.S. officials talk any more about containing Iran and eroding its influence in Iraq. Rather the new buzzword is "balancing" Iran, on the implicit assumption that there is an acceptable level of Iranian influence here.

A number of Iraqis expressed dismay that after the August 19 and October 25 bombings, administration statements emphasized that the United States was still intent on pulling out rather than making clear America's willingness to stand with Iraq against our common foes. They are equally dismayed to see the United States reaching out to Iran, which most Iraqis, even most Shiites, see as their country's foremost foe.

"We need you to take Iraqi security responsibility seriously, but we are confused. We are not sure what you want," Mithal al-Alusi, a secular, pro-Western member of parliament, told me. "It was clear in Bush's time, but now we don't know the American position."

It would be a tragedy if through sheer neglect the United States were to throw away the gains that it has given billions of dollars and thousands of lives to achieve. That doesn't have to happen. There are still more than two years before the American military pullout is complete. Given how far Iraq has come since 2007--the year of the surge--it is obvious that a lot can change in that time. Let us hope that one thing that changes is that the administration starts paying more attention to this important country at the center of the Middle East and doing more to safeguard its future as part of a larger American security architecture in the region.

Max Boot is the Jeane J. Kirkpatrick senior fellow in national security studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, a contributing editor to THE WEEKLY STANDARD, and author most recently of War Made New: Technology, Warfare, and the Course of History, 1500 to Today.