Briefing Book: How to Get Out of Iraq

Why Obama still has to leave Iraq in order to save it, and why 2009 will be more crucial than he -- or many others on his team -- expect.

Throughout the campaign, Barack Obama vowed that one of his first actions as president would be to issue a new order to military to end the war in Iraq. Since his resounding electoral victory, however, there has been a quiet campaign among the foreign-policy establishment and parts of the military to roll back those promises. This would be a mistake. The argument for a significant, early withdrawal of U.S. combat forces remains overwhelming. Indeed, a failure to deliver on the promise of early U.S. withdrawals is the most likely thing to cause a rapid deterioration in conditions in Iraq.

Throughout the campaign, Barack Obama vowed that one of his first actions as president would be to issue a new order to military to end the war in Iraq. Since his resounding electoral victory, however, there has been a quiet campaign among the foreign-policy establishment and parts of the military to roll back those promises. This would be a mistake. The argument for a significant, early withdrawal of U.S. combat forces remains overwhelming. Indeed, a failure to deliver on the promise of early U.S. withdrawals is the most likely thing to cause a rapid deterioration in conditions in Iraq.

Those who warn that security gains in Iraq are fragile and reversible are correct, even if they argued the contrary before the election. We should be under no illusions that Iraq will be stable or peaceful, or that its political divides have been overcome. As Brian Katulis of the Center for American Progress and I argued in September, beneath the superficial veneer of improved security upon which most Americans have focused, Iraq continues to be torn apart by deep divides over ethnicity and religion and by escalating battles between political insiders and popular forces. Despite some promising developments, little political reconciliation has taken place since the surge began.

There are some promising developments, and great hopes that the fragile security gains will hold and that the coming rounds of elections will produce a more stable Iraqi political order. But we should not count on best case scenarios coming to pass. It is absolutely essential for the administration to be prepared for a series of challenges that will likely arise. It should anticipate these contingencies and be prepared to respond appropriately, so that they are less likely to disrupt withdrawal plans and destabilize Iraq. To that end, this memo lays out a series of likely challenges in the first six months after the inauguration and a number of plausible contingencies for which the United States must be prepared. It then makes the case for the need to stick to a withdrawal schedule in line with the one presented by President-elect Obama during the campaign — one that does not contradict the Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA), is not irresponsible, and does not threaten Iraq’s fragile gains. The new administration will get only one chance to demonstrate the credibility of its commitments, and indefinitely leaving troops at current levels will only postpone rather than solve the problems.

Part I: Implementing the SOFA

Implementing the SOFA (which Iraqis tellingly call the Withdrawal Agreement) will be the overwhelming priority in U.S.-Iraqi relations over the coming six months, leading up to the all-important referendum on its ratification scheduled for July 31. Iraqis will be watching carefully to see whether the United States honors its commitments, and will likely test the limits of the agreement. Elements within the U.S. military will also likely wish to test those limits, judging by comments made by Gen. Raymond Odierno, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, and others.

Iraqis (and many Americans) are perplexed at the president-elect’s real intentions. Addressing these concerns head-on and publicly early in the administration is crucial. The new administration should do everything it can to adhere to the SOFA/WA and to build support inside of Iraq ahead of the referendum. This should not be problematic, since there is no contradiction between Obama’s timetable and that of the SOFA/WA. Clarity and consistency is key. He should say clearly that all combat troops could be withdrawn within 16 months, as promised, while the residual force envisioned in the campaign platform could then legally remain in Iraq to carry out training and counter-terrorism functions through the end of 2011, at which point their role could be jointly negotiated with the Iraqi government.

Among the major challenges likely to arise:

Troops return to bases (June 30). The first major deadline in the SOFA/WA will pose a significant challenge. The requirement that U.S. troops return to their bases contradicts core elements of U.S. counterinsurgency doctrine, and would represent a significant change to operations particularly in the cities. U.S. military officials have suggested that little will change in practice, but Iraqis clearly expect that they will. Managing the perceptions and the operational realities of this new legal situation will be a serious challenge — particularly given the proximity to the SOFA/WA referendum.

Detainee release. Also related to the SOFA is the question of detainee release, a major Iraqi (and particularly Sunni) demand. But if some 10,000-15,000 detainees rapidly return to their communities, violence and instability could follow. Slow-rolling the detainee releases, on the other hand, could undermine support for the SOFA referendum and trigger a legal challenge, while transferring large numbers of detainees to an Iraqi system seen as sectarian could spark sectarian tensions.

Referendum (July 31). This referendum will hang over all Iraqi politics and U.S.-Iraqi relations for the first half-year of the administration. Should the SOFA/WA fail to pass, U.S. forces will need either to begin withdrawing at an uncomfortably rapid rate or else find some other formal authorization to remain. Neither will be an attractive proposition. The government wants the agreement to pass, and will likely establish rules and a format conducive to success. But opposition forces will attempt to mobilize outrage at every opportunity to portray the United States as violating the terms of the SOFA/WA and not actually intending to withdraw. The referendum will almost certainly become a major issue in intra-Shia (and to a lesser extent intra-Sunni) political competition. U.S. policy needs to be extremely careful to not feed these flames.

Upcoming Events and Contingencies

Provincial elections (January 31). The fact that these elections are scheduled for less than two weeks after the inauguration is both a gift and a curse. Fortunately, these particular elections have no relevance to the debate over troop withdrawals, since they will be held so soon after the inauguration that no drawdown would begin until well after provincial election day. Still, extraordinary hopes have been invested in them, from creating more representative institutions to empowering friendly Sunni tribal forces. It is clear, however, that there will not be adequate international monitoring, that not all those expecting to gain power will do so, and that those currently in power will do everything in their ability to fix the results in their favor. Obama needs to be ready — less than two weeks after the inauguration — to have a clear position on the legitimacy of these elections.

After the provincial elections. Although the elections may be an attractive target for spoiler violence, the greater risk probably comes afterwards as disgruntled losers defect from the political process and newly elected leaders attempt to take the reins of power. Many groups have exaggerated expectations of these elections, and some disappointment is quite likely — particularly along ethnic and sectarian fault lines in Baghdad and Ninewa province, but also between competing Sunni and Shia groupings who have for years been fiercely struggling over intra-communal power. The United States should be prepared to engage with such dissatisfied groups to prevent their relapse into violence. After the elections, the Provincial Powers Law is due to come into effect, which will have far-reaching effects on the balance of power between Baghdad and the provinces and could trigger clashes between the new provincial governments and the centralizing efforts of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki.

Basra referendum (possibly April). The province of Basra is midway through a bid to create an autonomous region. If its backers collect enough signatures by the deadline (recently extended to Jan. 19), the referendum must take place within 60 to 90 days of certification. Its success would have major consequences for the decentralization of the Iraqi state and for possible compromises over oil. It would also frustrate the long-nurtured hopes of ISCI (the powerful Shia party the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq) for a Shia "super-region" of the center-south, but likely embolden other provinces to bid for similar status. This should be closely monitored. At last count, the pro-referendum forces were far short of the number of required signatures, and the timing and outcome of a referendum are uncertain. But Basra’s autonomy bid could emerge as a major issue suddenly, with little time to prepare, should the signature gathering succeed.

Kirkuk and disputed territories (March). The tortuously negotiated annex to the provincial elections law calls for the resolution of power-sharing and elections in Kirkuk by March. Given the ongoing, intense battles between Maliki and the Kurds over a wide range of issues, this will likely not go smoothly and could well become a focal point for wider Arab-Kurdish tensions. Conflicts between Kurds and Arabs have multiplied in recent months: from the armed showdown between the Iraqi army and Kurdish forces at Khanaqin, to the political stalemate over provincial elections in Kirkuk, to the cross-pressures over oil contracts, to Maliki’s attempts to stand up tribal support councils in mixed areas, to the incendiary language increasingly being exchanged between the prime minister and Kurdish leaders. While over the long haul the United States should support the efforts of UNAMI to strike a grand bargain — probably along the lines of the International Crisis Group’s "Oil for Soil" proposals — in the short term the administration should be prepared for a flare-up of tensions in Kirkuk, Mosul or elsewhere.

Iranian presidential elections (June 12). Although they are outside Iraq, these elections could have a significant effect on the U.S.-Iran-Iraq triangle. Should Mahmoud Ahmedinejad lose to a reformist candidate, it would facilitate an American-Iranian dialogue that could well entail a changed Iranian role in Iraq. But conservative forces within the Iranian state skeptical of such a dialogue may well see an interest in stirring up trouble in Iraq to scuttle such talks.

Refugee Return. The estimated 5 million Iraqis displaced from their homes inside and outside Iraq will continue to reshape Iraq and the region. It would be a mistake to push for early solutions to this problem, since few refugees wish to return to an uncertain Iraq and few preparations have been made to deal with the flood of property disputes and local tensions that would accompany significant returns. But Prime Minister Maliki has been aggressively encouraging such returns, while making few efforts to deal with the implications. The Obama team should focus on support for the refugees abroad and on building the institutional capacity of the relevant Iraqi state ministries to eventually reabsorb them.

National elections (December). National elections will be very much on the minds of all political actors as the year progresses. Although advocates of slower withdrawals cite these elections as a reason to retain high troop levels through 2009, it is worth noting that the elections may not happen on schedule (Iraqi officials have recently been suggesting March 2010 as a more likely date) and that continuing high U.S. troop levels might help anti-U.S. forces at the polls.

Contingency planning

Contingency #1: Testing the SOFA/WA. In the first few months after the SOFA/WA comes into effect, there will likely be a politically significant test of the new Iraqi powers of jurisdiction such as the arrest of an American contractor. Given the realities of Iraqi politics ahead of the provincial elections and SOFA/WA referendum, such an arrest and trial would likely be extremely popular and exploited for political advantage. The United States will find itself caught between the imperative of respecting the SOFA/WA and the imperative of protecting its own. A plan needs to be ready to go to defuse this test, preferably one rooted in joint understandings with the Iraqis.

Contingency #2: Resurgence of violence in areas of drawdown. The United States should resist the pressure to re-intervene whenever security conditions deteriorate. Although U.S. troops may need to act in the face of genuinely catastrophic developments — whether directly or in a support role — they should not be allowed to play the role of safety net for the Iraqi government indefinitely, especially if it fails to implement key political accommodation initiatives and reforms. Doing so would remove the incentives to reform that the withdrawal is supposed to trigger. Helping Iraq to find a stable equilibrium that does not require the presence of U.S. troops at high levels throughout the country should be a higher imperative than putting out every fire.

Contingency #3: Radical political upheaval. A number of plausible scenarios could unfold: a parliamentary vote of no-confidence in Maliki (already threatened by major parties); Maliki dissolving Parliament or canceling elections in anticipation of such a move against him; a military coup against Maliki (less likely but much discussed in Baghdad); or the assassination or death of a major figure such as Maliki or Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani. Any of these developments would test the commitments of the administration to its multiple, competing interests in Iraq. Whether Obama prioritizes democratic institutions or stable leadership is a first-order question that he should consider in advance, not when the crisis hits.

Part II: The Case for Redeployment and Other Difficult Steps

Upon taking office, Obama will likely face great pressure from various parties — military, Iraqi, and partisan — to relax his plans to begin withdrawing troops from Iraq. There will likely be coordinated arguments about the fragility of the current situation, the risk of squandering the gains of the "surge," and the need to maintain troop strength through the provincial and national elections. These arguments should be resisted. The catalog of political frailties and security risks are real, but there is little reason to believe they will be any less real in six months or in a year. Postponing withdrawals would continue to freeze the current situation in place, while squandering the best opportunity the United States will ever have to reshape its commitments to Iraq.

There is only one chance to make a first impression. The transition to a new administration represents a unique — and short-lived — opportunity to establish a new relationship with the Iraqi government and the Iraqi people. It is absolutely essential that upon taking office, Obama clearly affirms, publicly and privately, his commitment to his timetable for withdrawing U.S. troops. At the same time, the president should assure the Iraqis that he intends to jointly coordinate and manage the drawdown of U.S. troops. Any uncertainty about American intentions in this regard should be corrected. Front-loading withdrawals would help significantly with the July referendum on the SOFA/WA.

Several broad recommendations should guide the administration’s policy:

Make a significant "down payment" on troop withdrawals. There will be tremendous pressure to postpone the initial withdrawals because of the intense calendar of Iraqi events detailed above. This would be a mistake. A visible, significant early withdrawal would help significantly with the SOFA/WA referendum, would send an important message to Iraqi leaders, and would break the institutional inertia that threatens to lock in the current strategy. Only the certainty of a U.S. withdrawal will shift the incentives of Iraqi politicians to move quickly towards a minimally acceptable political accommodation. Many Iraqis are deeply concerned about alleged secret annexes to the SOFA/WA and that the United States does not really intend to leave. The more clearly the commitment to withdrawal can be articulated, the better — for both Iraqi and American political purposes.. The military is already prepared for such an initial withdrawal, and should have little problem implementing such early cuts — and would welcome the freeing up of resources for Afghanistan and other challenges. Critics will argue that this is not the right time to begin withdrawals, but it never will be.

Lower expectations about U.S. ability to micro-manage or shape Iraqi politics. The United States’ goals and expectations in terms of shaping Iraqi domestic politics should reflect its diminishing commitments and presence. One way to operationalize this would be to focus U.S. efforts on the political front on encouraging the implementation of the Iraqi Parliament’s Political Reform Document — the comprehensive set of political reform and power-sharing commitments adopted as part of Iraqi negotiations over the SOFA/WA. This ambitious document, drafted and agreed upon by Iraqi politicians rather than by American observers, would address most of the pressing issues undermining stability in Iraq… if implemented.

Establish a new relationship with the Iraqi government. The Iraqi leadership has a deep, well-established relationship with Bush administration officials, not to mention a significant set of private understandings. The Iraqis are uncertain about the Obama administration, and likely hope to resume business as usual with the new team. It is important to make clear that relations will change. The withdrawal of combat brigades and the defining the mission of residual forces should be jointly managed with the Iraqis, but at the same time it should be made clear that the age of the blank check and permanent commitments has come to an end. This does not mean creating a hostile relationship or negative dynamic. The emphasis should be on partnering to manage the drawdown of U.S. forces and the building of a new, constructive relationship. But it does mean doing something early on to demonstrate the new approach — to show that conditionality is real, and that the Bush blank check has ended.

Shape the debate on the SOFA/WA. U.S. policy and public statements should be highly attuned to the urgency of shaping the debate over the SOFA/WA. Deep suspicions about American intentions and a pervasive mood of hostility toward the United States are currently shaping the Iraqi political debate. If left unattended, these suspicions — fanned by opponents of the agreement — could well lead to a deeply undesirable outcome in the July referendum. Obama should move early and aggressively to reassure the Iraqi public about its commitment to the SOFA and to the withdrawal, as well as to the territorial integrity of the Iraqi state. And it is vital that the United States speak with one voice to avoid such confusion: Military commanders should refrain from making statements that throw into question American commitments to the SOFA/WA.

Restate commitment to Iraqi territorial unity. Many Iraqis believe that Vice President-elect Joseph Biden’s old proposal to partition Iraq is the administration’s "secret" policy. Such concerns should be addressed with clear statements of commitment to Iraq’s territorial, federal unity in order to remove one potential and unnecessary irritant in U.S.-Iraqi relations.


President-elect Obama will have an initial window of opportunity to establish credibility at home, in Iraq, and in the wider regional and international arena. An overly cautious approach to the withdrawal of combat forces would quickly squander this opportunity. Muddying the U.S. commitment to withdrawal could well endanger the prospects for the SOFA/WA referendum in Iraq and may trigger, rather than prevent, the feared deterioration in security and political conditions. Obama must therefore move quickly and aggressively to define his new policy, and not allow the impressive catalog of challenges facing Iraq this year to paralyze U.S. policy. The new president should honor his campaign promises and begin his administration by announcing a significant "down payment" on troop withdrawals and presenting a clear vision for the future of the American role in Iraq. Only then will the incentives be aligned to push Iraq towards a stable future and to shape a sustainable U.S.-Iraqi relationship.

Marc Lynch is associate professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University, where he is the director of the Institute for Middle East Studies and of the Project on Middle East Political Science. He is also a non-resident senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security. He is the author of The Arab Uprising (March 2012, PublicAffairs).

He publishes frequently on the politics of the Middle East, with a particular focus on the Arab media and information technology, Iraq, Jordan, Egypt, and Islamist movements. Twitter: @abuaardvark

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