One way to chart the recent course of Iraq's history is by the vehicles that American soldiers drive. When I first came here in the summer of 2003, I remember riding around in open-top, unarmored Humvees. By 2004, a spate of IEDs had made it necessary to move to up-armored Humvees, followed a few years later by heavier MRAP (Mine Resistant Ambush Protected) vehicles that look as if they wandered off the set of a Star Wars movie. When last here in 2008, I went everywhere in a hulking MRAP.
Imagine my surprise, then, to find myself being driven in late October from Camp Victory, the main U.S. base on the outskirts of Baghdad, into the center of town along Route Irish, once notorious as the world's most dangerous road, in a lightly armored Chevrolet Suburban that could not withstand a roadside bomb. In Nasiriyah, a town in southern Iraq that was a major focus of resistance during the initial U.S. invasion in the spring of 2003, I rode into the town center without body armor in an SUV driven by the local police chief.
Clearly, despite the headlines about bombings in Baghdad, the situation has improved immeasurably, even if the war is not yet over. U.S. soldiers are still engaged in combat in rural areas alongside the Iraqis. U.S. Special Operations Forces are still carrying out nightly raids on terrorist leaders, though only after they have obtained arrest warrants from an Iraqi judge. That's not something they had to worry about in the past. Nor did they have to turn over suspected terrorists to the Iraqi legal system. Some of the commandos grumble that Iraqi justice is often a revolving door with culprits captured one week released the next, but they no longer have any choice but to work through the local system. The two U.S. detention facilities, Camp Bucca and Camp Cropper, are closing and their detainees are being released or transferred to Iraqi custody.
This is an indication of how things have changed since June 30 when under the U.S.-Iraq security agreement most (though not all) U.S. troops had to pull out of 27 major urban areas. In Baghdad, for instance, the number of Joint Security Stations where U.S. troops are present has declined from 200 to 15. The Americans are now required to secure Iraqi permission when they venture off-base in most instances, and logistics convoys run only at night to maintain as low a profile as possible. The chief U.S. role in many parts of the country is to provide the "enablers" that Iraqi forces lack, such as personnel skilled in bomb disposal, intelligence, reconnaissance, route clearance, and aviation.
Notwithstanding the diminished American role, which occasioned some initial confusion on both sides, violence has not risen since June 30. In many areas attacks are actually lower today, down to levels not seen since 2003. Only 9 Americans died in combat in October--still 9 too many but a far cry from the grisly totals of years past. In all, 285 people were killed in October in political violence across Iraq, a 93 percent reduction from three years ago. (There were 4,100 fatalities in October 2006, according to data provided to me by the U.S. military headquarters.) When attacks do occur they do not spur revenge killings as in the past. Baghdad is now full of life and electricity--literally. The streets are lit up at night. Stores are open, including hundreds of stores selling liquor, and the streets are full of traffic.
In and around the Green Zone (now protected by Iraqis in cooperation with Triple Canopy security contractors), the democratic process is functioning. In their typically protracted and Byzantine fashion, politicians are hashing out the terms of the next parliamentary election in January, which is widely expected to continue the trend of this year's provincial elections which saw power flowing away from Islamist parties and toward more secular and nationalist candidates.
Those who look at Afghanistan and shake their heads in despair should pay attention. The situation in Iraq was far worse in 2006-07 than in Afghanistan today, with far more people getting killed as sectarian groups were being drawn into a full-blown civil war. Two years later, those days seem like a nightmare from which Iraqis have mercifully awoken.
Yet there is no room to be complacent. Iraqis themselves are nervous about the coming American pullout. The United States still has 117,000 troops and 114,000 contractors here, but by August 2010 the figure is due to come down to 50,000 troops and 75,000 contractors. At that point U.S. forces are supposed to discontinue combat operations. Even before then the two headquarters that have run U.S. operations since 2004--Multi-National Forces-Iraq and Multi-National Corps-Iraq--will have been collapsed and shrunk into a single unit called U.S. Forces-Iraq. The Multi-National Security Transition Command, in charge of training Iraqi security forces, will disappear altogether; its commander will become one of the deputy commanders of U.S. Forces-Iraq.
By the end of 2011, the American soldiers are supposed to be gone altogether, even though by then Iraq will still have only a rudimentary capacity to defend itself from external aggression. It will not, for example, have a capable air defense system complete with fighter aircraft to intercept threats such as Iranian drones that stray across the border. As for internal security, the Iraqi Security Forces, now more than 660,000 strong, are growing in size and competence, but they are still vulnerable to determined attacks, as two major truck bombings in the heart of the capital in recent months attest. Prime Minister Nuri al Maliki, who sacked and arrested numerous security personnel after both incidents, clearly thinks that corruption is at fault--not a bad guess given how pervasive that problem remains at all levels of Iraqi government.
During the course of a trip across Iraq undertaken at the invitation of General David Petraeus, I heard numerous Iraqis of diverse political views express concern about the future of their country once they lose what one of them called their "American security blanket." Of the major political factions only the Sadrists remain determined to force U.S. soldiers out. "The complete withdrawal of U.S. troops is a big mistake," a police chief in southern Iraq told me. "We need our friend the U.S. forces to stay a minimum of 15 to 20 years to sustain safety and security." "If nothing more is accomplished by the time of withdrawal," echoed a police chief in the north, "there will be fighting and big violence among the people. U.S. forces are the balance between positive and negative."
Several Iraqis mentioned the example of U.S. troops remaining in Germany and Japan after World War II and suggested that the United States should undertake an equally long-term commitment in Iraq. "Leaving Iraq at this very critical period is irresponsible behavior," a centrist Shiite politician in Baghdad told me. That is a different tune from what many Iraqis, led by Prime Minister Maliki, were singing last year during negotiations on the Status of Forces Agreement, when they demanded a rapid American drawdown. But now that the drawdown is actually happening, many Iraqis are having second thoughts.
They are concerned about myriad problems ranging from the possibility of Arab-Kurd clashes to Iranian attempts to dominate their nascent democracy. The October 25 bomb blast in Baghdad which killed 155 people underlined the dangers that remain. Al Qaeda in Iraq, which claimed responsibility for this attack as well as an earlier bombing on August 19 that killed 100, has been battered but remains operational under its elusive chief, Abu Ayyub al-Masri. It is still the principal threat to the Iraqi state. But newer terrorist groups abound. The most prominent of these on the Sunni side is the Jaish Rajal al-Tariqah al-Naqshbandia (Men of the Army of the Naqshbandi Order), a group of former Baathist officers who are said to have close links with al Qaeda. They are a particular bête noire for Prime Minister Maliki and other Shiite leaders who fear a Baathist coup among Sunni military officers and accuse Syria of plotting with the Baathists.
On the Shiite side, Moktada al-Sadr's forces, once the main threat, have splintered, and Sadr himself has moved to Iran where he is studying to become an ayatollah while he licks his wounds from the defeats he suffered last year in Basra and Sadr City. But several of the Sadrist splinters remain dangerous, notably the Promised Day Brigade and the Asaib Ahl al-Haq. Even more dangerous is the Kata ib Hezbollah, a group sponsored by Iran's Quds Force that hopes to replicate in Iraq the strategy that Hezbollah has employed so successfully to carve out its own fiefdom in Lebanon.
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.