EACH NATIONAL INTELLIGENCE Estimate offers a snapshot of the current situation with prognostications for the future. One way to assess the significance of the most recent NIE is to compare its language on key points with that of the January 2007 NIE. Many of the problems remain, of course, but much progress has clearly been made. One thing remains absolutely constant, however: in January, the Intelligence Community assessed that a rapid U.S. withdrawal would lead to disaster and in August it came to precisely the same conclusion. Below are some paired selections from each NIE on key topics.
The Security Situation
Iraqi society's growing polarization, the persistent weakness of the security forces and the state in general, and all sides' ready recourse to violence are collectively driving an increase in communal and insurgent violence and political extremism. Unless efforts to reverse these conditions show measurable progress during the term of this Estimate, the coming 12 to 18 months, we assess that the overall security situation will continue to deteriorate at rates comparable to the latter part of 2006.
There have been measurable but uneven improvements in Iraq's security situation since our last National Intelligence Estimate on Iraq in January 2007. The steep escalation of rates of violence has been checked for now, and overall attack levels across Iraq have fallen during seven of the last nine weeks. Coalition forces, working with Iraqi forces, tribal elements, and some Sunni insurgents, have reduced al-Qa'ida in Iraq's (AQI) capabilities, restricted its freedom of movement, and denied it grassroots support in some areas.
We assess, to the extent that Coalition forces continue to conduct robust counterinsurgency operations and mentor and support the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF), that Iraq's security will continue to improve modestly during the next six to 12 months but that levels of insurgent and sectarian violence will remain high and the Iraqi Government will continue to struggle to achieve national-level political reconciliation and improved governance.
The Political Situation
Decades of subordination to Sunni political, social, and economic domination have made the Shia deeply insecure about their hold on power. This insecurity leads the Shia to mistrust US efforts to reconcile Iraqi sects and reinforces their unwillingness to engage with the Sunnis on a variety of issues, including adjusting the structure of Iraq's federal system, reining in Shia militias, and easing de-Bathification.
* Many Sunni Arabs remain unwilling to accept their minority status, believe the central government is illegitimate and incompetent, and are convinced that Shia dominance will increase Iranian influence over Iraq, in ways that erode the state's Arab character and increase Sunni repression.
* The absence of unifying leaders among the Arab Sunni or Shia with the capacity to speak for or exert control over their confessional groups limits prospects for reconciliation. The Kurds remain willing to participate in Iraqi state building but reluctant to surrender any of the gains in autonomy they have achieved.
Political and security trajectories in Iraq continue to be driven primarily by Shia insecurity about retaining political dominance, widespread Sunni unwillingness to accept a diminished political status, factional rivalries within the sectarian communities resulting in armed conflict, and the actions of extremists such as AQI and elements of the Sadrist Jaysh al-Mahdi (JAM) militia that try to fuel sectarian violence. Two new drivers have emerged since the January Estimate: expanded Sunni opposition to AQI and Iraqi expectation of a Coalition drawdown. Perceptions that the Coalition is withdrawing probably will encourage factions anticipating a power vacuum to seek local security solutions that could intensify sectarian violence and intra-sectarian competition. At the same time, fearing a Coalition withdrawal, some tribal elements and Sunni groups probably will continue to seek accommodation with the Coalition to strengthen themselves for a post- Coalition security environment.
* Sunni Arab resistance to AQI has expanded in the last six to nine months but has not yet translated into broad Sunni Arab support for the Iraqi Government or widespread willingness to work with the Shia. The Iraqi Government's Shia leaders fear these groups will ultimately side with armed opponents of the government, but the Iraqi Government has supported some initiatives to incorporate those rejecting AQI into Interior Ministry and Defense Ministry elements.
The Sunni Arabs
A number of identifiable developments could help to reverse the negative trends driving Iraq's current trajectory. They include:
* Broader Sunni acceptance of the current political structure and federalism to begin to reduce one of the major sources of Iraq's instability.
* Significant concessions by Shia and Kurds to create space for Sunni acceptance of federalism.
* A bottom-up approach--deputizing, resourcing, and working more directly with neighborhood watch groups and establishing grievance committees--to help mend frayed relationships between tribal and religious groups, which have been mobilized into communal warfare over the past three years.
The IC assesses that the emergence of "bottom-up" security initiatives, principally among Sunni Arabs and focused on combating AQI, represent the best prospect for improved security over the next six to 12 months, but we judge these initiatives will only translate into widespread political accommodation and enduring stability if the Iraqi Government accepts and supports them. A multi-stage process involving the Iraqi Government providing support and legitimacy for such initiatives could foster over the longer term political reconciliation between the participating Sunni Arabs and the national government. We also assess that under some conditions "bottom-up initiatives" could pose risks to the Iraqi Government.
* We judge such initiatives are most likely to succeed in predominantly Sunni Arab areas, where the presence of AQI elements has been significant, tribal networks and identities are strong, the local government is weak, sectarian conflict is low, and the ISF tolerate Sunni initiatives, as illustrated by Al Anbar Province.
* Sunni Arab resistance to AQI has expanded, and neighborhood security groups, occasionally consisting of mixed Shia-Sunni units, have proliferated in the past several months. These trends, combined with increased Coalition operations, have eroded AQI's operational presence and capabilities in some areas.
* Such initiatives, if not fully exploited by the Iraqi Government, could over time also shift greater power to the regions, undermine efforts to impose central authority, and reinvigorate armed opposition to the Baghdad government.
* Coalition military operations focused on improving population security, both in and outside of Baghdad, will remain critical to the success of local and regional efforts until sectarian fears are diminished enough to enable the Shia-led Iraqi Government to fully support the efforts of local Sunni groups.
The Iraqi Security Forces
* Despite real improvements, the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF)--particularly the Iraqi police--will be hard pressed in the next 12-18 months to execute significantly increased security responsibilities, and particularly to operate independently against Shia militias with success. Sectarian divisions erode the dependability of many units, many are hampered by personnel and equipment shortfalls, and a number of Iraqi units have refused to serve outside of the areas where they were recruited.
Iraqi Security Forces involved in combined operations with Coalition forces have performed adequately, and some units have demonstrated increasing professional competence. However, we judge that the ISF have not improved enough to conduct major operations independent of the Coalition on a sustained basis in multiple locations and that the ISF remain reliant on the Coalition for important aspects of logistics and combat support.
The deployment of ISF units from throughout Iraq to Baghdad in support of security operations known as Operation Fardh al-Qanun marks significant progress since last year when large groups of soldiers deserted rather than depart their home areas, but Coalition and Iraqi Government support remains critical.
* Recently, the Iraqi military planned and conducted two joint Army and police large-scale security operations in Baghdad, demonstrating an improving capacity for operational command and control.
* Militia and insurgent influences continue to undermine the reliability of some ISF units, and political interference in security operations continues to undermine Coalition and ISF efforts.
* The Maliki government is implementing plans to expand the Iraqi Army and to increase its overall personnel strength to address critical gaps, but we judge that significant security gains from those programs will take at least six to 12 months, and probably longer, to materialize.
Al Qaeda in Iraq
* Extremists--most notably the Sunni jihadist group al-Qa'ida in Iraq (AQI) and Shia oppositionist Jaysh al-Mahdi (JAM)--continue to act as very effective accelerators for what has become a self-sustaining inter-sectarian struggle between Shia and Sunnis.
Coalition forces, working with Iraqi forces, tribal elements, and some Sunni insurgents, have reduced al-Qa'ida in Iraq's (AQI) capabilities, restricted its freedom of movement, and denied it grassroots support in some areas.
Sunni Arab resistance to AQI has expanded, and neighborhood security groups, occasionally consisting of mixed Shia-Sunni units, have proliferated in the past several months. These trends, combined with increased Coalition operations, have eroded AQI's operational presence and capabilities in some areas.
The Consequences of Withdrawal
Coalition capabilities, including force levels, resources, and operations, remain an essential stabilizing element in Iraq. If Coalition forces were withdrawn rapidly during the term of this Estimate, we judge that this almost certainly would lead to a significant increase in the scale and scope of sectarian conflict in Iraq, intensify Sunni resistance to the Iraqi Government, and have adverse consequences for national reconciliation.
* If such a rapid withdrawal were to take place, we judge that the ISF would be unlikely to survive as a non-sectarian national institution; neighboring countries--invited by Iraqi factions or unilaterally--might intervene openly in the conflict; massive civilian casualties and forced population displacement would be probable; AQI would attempt to use parts of the country--particularly al-Anbar province--to plan increased attacks in and outside of Iraq; and spiraling violence and political disarray in Iraq, along with Kurdish moves to control Kirkuk and strengthen autonomy, could prompt Turkey to launch a military incursion
We assess that changing the mission of Coalition forces from a primarily counterinsurgency and stabilization role to a primary combat support role for Iraqi forces and counterterrorist operations to prevent AQI from establishing a safehaven would erode security gains achieved thus far. The impact of a change in mission on Iraq's political and security environment and throughout the region probably would vary in intensity and suddenness of onset in relation to the rate and scale of a Coalition redeployment. Developments within the Iraqi communities themselves will be decisive in determining political and security trajectories.
* Recent security improvements in Iraq, including success against AQI, have depended significantly on the close synchronization of conventional counterinsurgency and counterterrorism operations. A change of mission that interrupts that synchronization would place security improvements at risk.
Frederick W. Kagan is a contributing editor to THE WEEKLY STANDARD and a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. He is the author of Finding the Target: The Transformation of the American Military (Encounter).