Marc Lynch

Iraq contingencies

Iraq contingencies

Apologies for being away for a week — been working on a number of projects which have taken me away. I’m back, courtesy of a Washington Post piece this morning  U.S. contingency planning for the period following the Iraqi election (disclosure: I’m quoted).  The headline here is that General Odierno is planning contingencies for slowing down U.S. drawdown plans, but I don’t actually think that’s much of a story.  Of course he is — it would be irresponsible to not plan for contingencies. But I’ve seen little indication that the Obama administration, or for that matter Gen. Odierno, has been anything but committed to the drawdown from Iraq. That commitment has been clear, and that’s all the the good.

There’s been a mini-boom of late in commentary urging Obama to delay his timeline for drawing down U.S. forces, or at least to "do more" —  the Kagans are shocked, shocked to discover that Iranians are influential in Iraq, Jackson Diehl just wants Obama to care more about Iraq (without any hint of what policies might follow). They should be ignored. The administration is handling Iraq calmly, maturely, and patiently,  has demonstrated in word and deed its commitment to its drawdown policy, and has tried hard to thread a devilish needle of trying to shape events without triggering an extremely potent Iraqi backlash. It is possible, if not likely, that there could be slippage on the August deadline of getting to 50,000 troops, mainly because the elections slipped all the way to March. That’s one of the reasons I always was skeptical of pegging the drawdown to the elections, but that ship has long since sailed. But the SOFA target of December 2011 for a full U.S. withdrawal is a legal deadline, not a political one. It could only be changed at the request of the Iraqi government, and not by American fiat. While Iraqi politicians may say in private that they may be open to a longer U.S. presence, very few will say so in public — because it would be political suicide in a nationalist, highly charged electoral environment.

The drawdown will probably matter considerably less than people expect. With the new SOFA-defined rules of engagement, U.S. forces have already stopped doing many of the things associated with the "surge." The Iraqi response to American efforts on the de-Baathification circus demonstrate painfully clearly that the nearly 100,000 troops still in Iraq gave very little leverage on an issue which the U.S. at least publicly deemed vital — a point made very effectively by Ambassador Hill at the Council on Foreign Relations last week. The sharp backlash against even the measured criticisms by U.S. officials offers an important lesson:  Doing the sorts of assertive things which may please Obama’s critics are highly likely to spark a negative reaction among Iraqis, generating more hostility to the U.S. role without actually accomplishing anything. The U.S. is wise to avoid them.

That doesn’t mean that things are rosy. The de-Baathification circus has demonstrated the fragility of Iraqi institutions, and helped to reignite sectarian resentments and fears (many Sunnis feel targeted, while many Shia are being treated to an endless barrage of anti-Ba’athist electoral propaganda). There’s very much a risk of long, drawn-out coalition talks after the election. It isn’t certain how a transition from power will go, should Maliki’s list lose, given the prime minister’s efforts to centralize power in his office over the last few years. There may well be a spike in violence by frustrated losers in the elections. If there’s massive fraud on election day, things could get ugly. The elections, already marred by the de-Baathification fiasco, may well end up producing a new Parliament and government which doesn’t really change much. There are big, long-deferred issues to confront after the elections, such as the Article 140 referendum over Kirkuk.

But none of those issues would be resolved by an American effort to delay its military drawdown. They generally fall into the "sub-optimal" rather than the "catastrophic" category. An American decision to delay the drawdown would not likely be welcomed by Iraqis in the current political environment. Nor would it generate more leverage for the U.S. over internal Iraqi affairs. Iraq’s future is not really about us, if it ever was — not a function of American military levels, commitment, or caring, but rather of internal Iraqi power struggles and dynamics.

This doesn’t mean that the U.S. should do nothing, of course. It should be actively involved diplomatically, with the Embassy doing all it can to push for compromises and for political accommodation on crucial issues. I agree with the Kagans that the U.S. should do more to active the non-military aspects of the SFA and consolidate the long-term relationship. It should do all it can to ensure a free and fair election in a few weeks, and to calm nerves during the coalition formation and transition period to follow. After the election serious discussions should (and will) be commenced about the long-term future relationship between the U.S. and Iraq. But none of those efforts should interfere with the strategic imperative of continuing the drawdown of forces, or with recognizing the new political realities in the U.S.-Iraqi relationship.