Remember Iraq? You will soon enough

Remember Iraq? You will soon enough

By Kori Schake

Iraq is receding from our national consciousness (Stephen Colbert’s efforts to remind us about the war notwithstanding). The combined effects of the success of the surge, President Bush signing a restrictive Status of Forces Agreement with the Maliki government last year that validated calls for an accelerated withdrawal, and President Obama’s glide path to removing U.S. forces from Iraq by the end of 2011 have made Iraq less newsworthy than the financial crisis or the Obama administration’s efforts to mimic in Afghanistan the strategy they said was not succeeding in Iraq. It no longer bleeds enough to lead. But this vanishing act may be reversed in the next few weeks.

The gains achieved by the counterinsurgency strategy, additional forces, and increasing capacity in Iraq’s own military and police forces are substantial, and they have been sustained for nearly a year. According to the Brookings Institution’s Iraq Index, enemy initiated attacks are around 150 per month now, down ten-fold from 1,600 at their height. Iraqi casualties are still staggeringly high at 500 per month, but that is 3,500 fewer Iraqis losing their lives each month from when violence was at its height. By a substantial margin, those victims are Iraqi, civilian, and Shi’ia.

Politically, Iraq has made progress on about half the “benchmarks” demanded by Congress of the Bush administration. Worryingly, those Brookings grades as unmet are: the amnesty law, de-Baathification, federal funding to the provinces, the hydrocarbons law, resolving the status of Kirkuk, and the government absorbing Sons of Iraq into the security forces. To give a measure of the Maliki government’s resistance, of the 100,000 Sons of Iraq who helped break the back of the insurgency, only 5,200 have been integrated into the Iraqi Security Forces. Each of these issues could be flashpoints for violence as the United States disengages. And add to these troubles an Iraqi budget crunch that is slowing the pace of Iraq’s security force expansion.

Bush’s Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) requires U.S. military forces to withdraw from Iraq’s cities by June 30th of this year. The withdrawal is a month before the date set for a referendum in Iraq on the SOFA. The cabinet has requested a 6 month delay in the referendum, but parliament is unlikely to be willing or able to draft legislation in advance of June 30th. If the majority of Iraqis do not vote in favor of continuing the occupation of their country in a few weeks, U.S. military forces are required to withdraw within a year. 

Most Iraq experts do not believe Maliki will support the SOFA, despite the fact that his own government negotiated and signed it. He has consistently misjudged his forces’ capacity to manage Iraq’s security threats without American help, calling for our withdrawal as early as 2005. Facing national elections at the end of the year, neither Sunni, Shi’ia, nor Sadrist parties are expected to campaign in favor of the SOFA. The only overt Iraqi support for continuing American military involvement in Iraq comes from Kurds and Iraq’s security forces. Iraq’s defense minister, Abdul Khader, has said they want an American presence for at least the next five years. The odds are that Iraqis will not endorse his view.

These tricky political waters will be navigated by a U.S. ambassador with no experience in Iraq, or expertise in the language, culture or politics of the region. No more troops will go to Iraq, irrespective of what General Odierno may request; they have already been diverted to the flow of forces for Afghanistan. Iraq is now the economy-of-force war. Liberal democrats who have voted against the supplemental spending bill for Afghanistan will surely refuse the purse strings for more investment in Iraq, even if the troops could be found. 

A hasty U.S. disengagement will feed violence. This was the fundamental problem with the Iraq Survey Group’s recommendations and candidate Obama’s Iraq policy: frightened people threatened with abandonment by the only force that can push violence out of the political process are unlikely to make brave political compromises necessary to stabilize the country. This time, Iraqis may choose the satisfaction of rejecting occupation only to engender an electoral flight to the extremes six months later. It would be a sad conclusion to the Iraq war for President Bush to have set that process in motion.