The Kahl of the wild: Hey, Tom, Iraq ain’t anywhere near your ‘unraveling’
Here’s a report from my CNAS colleague Matt Irvine on a conference he attended Thursday at which Colin Kahl demonstrated that being associated with CNAS sure doesn’t mean we march in lockstep: By Matthew Irvine Best Defense chief think tanks correspondent The United States and Iraq are on a path towards a peaceful long term ...
Here's a report from my CNAS colleague Matt Irvine on a conference he attended Thursday at which Colin Kahl demonstrated that being associated with CNAS sure doesn't mean we march in lockstep:
Here’s a report from my CNAS colleague Matt Irvine on a conference he attended Thursday at which Colin Kahl demonstrated that being associated with CNAS sure doesn’t mean we march in lockstep:
By Matthew Irvine
Best Defense chief think tanks correspondent
The United States and Iraq are on a path towards a peaceful long term partnership and current U.S. military drawdown plans will remain intact, a Pentagon official argued Thursday at a Washington conference.
Speaking at a session held by the Jamestown Foundation, Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for the Middle East (and former CNAS senior fellow) Colin Kahl delivered a strong rebuttal to skeptics of the Obama Administration’s Iraq policy. However, Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad and other prominent Iraq hands were cautious to downright depressing about the future of Iraqi politics and security.
Kahl outlined what he called three “myths” regarding the United States and Iraq:
Myth #1: “Iraq is teetering on the edge of chaos and is going to unravel.” Peddlers of this myth argue that large numbers of American troops will be required for the long term to prevent a return to the violent days of years past. They cite recent sectarian rhetoric, bombings and high profile political setbacks (such as recent de-Baathification efforts by Iraqi National Alliance) as evidence of Iraq’s supposed unraveling. Kahl, by contrast, argues that “this ignores broader trends that Iraq is emerging as a largely self-reliant state.” He supported that point with five observations:
First, violent incidents are at the lowest levels since the invasion. The United States has only had one combat fatality in Iraq in the last three months.
Second, there is no evidence of Sunnis and Shi’a returning to militias and insurgencies for protection.
Third, al Qaeda in Iraq is weaker than ever. Kahl went so far as to argue, “Al Qaeda in Iraq is no longer an insurgency capable of maintaining a high tempo of operations or holding territory…. In our assessment it does not represent a strategic threat to the government of Iraq.”
Fourth, Iraqi Security Forces have stepped up. For the first time since the invasion there are fewer than 100,000 U.S. soldiers in Iraq while violence levels have hit all-time lows.
Fifth, Iraqi counterterrorism forces are robust. So strong, Kahl says, “Iraq probably has the most robust and most capable counterterrorism forces in the entire Middle East.”
Myth #2: We aren’t paying attention to Iraq. According to Kahl, the administration has focused on Iraq, it’s the media that hasn’t. This myth comes from essays by former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and recent articles in the Washington Times. “Iraq is the only place on Earth that President Obama has appointed the Vice President as a special envoy. Iraq is the only place on earth that the President, Vice President, Secretary of State and Secretary of Defense have all been to.”
Myth #3: We define success as disengagement. This myth is a legacy of the 2008 presidential campaign, and ignores the Obama administration’s actual policies. Citing the president’s February 27, 2009, speech at Camp Lejeune, Kahl outlined the American objective as a “sovereign, stable and self-reliant” Iraq. “With the drawdown our engagement with Iraq will increase.” The Strategic Framework Agreement to be worked out with the new government (if there is one) will show this strong bilateral relationship.
Regarding the renegotiation of the SOFA, it is not going to happen. There is much flexibility in the Bush administration’s original agreement and the force levels will be just fine. “The timing was recommended by General Odierno and he feels it gives him sufficient capabilities on the ground,” said Kahl.
Not everyone at the Jamestown Foundation’s conference was as optimistic as Kahl, the only current Pentagon official employee who spoke. Former U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Zalmay Khalilzad speculated that “if the election produces a protracted period for negotiation, and there are various possibilities for things working and not working… then our timetable needs to have the flexibility to do what we can to assist Iraq and it’s progress forward.”
Reidar Visser, a research fellow at the Norwegian Institute of International Affairs said that, “I’ve changed from being an optimist about Iraqi politics a year ago and am now a pessimist. . . . People are being intimidated, they don’t know if they are going to lose their jobs.” Provincial leaders, he added, “are inventing de-Baathification processes every day. This comes from the Iraqi National Alliance, trying to use it to destroy the Dawa. . . . De-Baathification has been threatening the integrity of the election ever since it came on the agenda a couple of months ago.”
There was a clear lack of consensus among participants over how Sunday’s election will play out in the coming weeks and months, and where the United States and Iraq stand as partners. The only point of agreement was that the Iraqi civil war of 2005-2008 has not returned yet.
Tom again: Kahl’s a smart guy, and also knows his music. I disagree with him. Why? Because I think a lot of Iraqis are just waiting for the Americans to get out of the way so they can start fighting again. And because I think the incentives that have led to violence in the past are still there. That is, none of the basic questions facing Iraq have been answered.
The good thing is that we will now in the coming months who is right. I hope I am wrong. Let’s see how the formation of the new government goes.
Bottom line, there are a lot of things going on in Iraq right now that feel to me like early 2006. Let’s hope Kahl and the Gang do better than Feith and the Stooges.
***Here’s an update with some comments from the Hon. Kahl, and a counter-response from the Hon. Irvine:
Colin Kahl responds:
Two small but important corrections from Matthew Irvine read-out. Matthew writes that I said: “The Strategic Framework Agreement to be worked out with the new government (if there is one) will show this strong bilateral relationship.”
This is not actually not what I said. As you know, the Strategic Framework Agreement (SFA) exists and does not need re-negotiation with the new government. In my remarks, I noted that the SFA provides the foundation, moving forward, for continuing our strong bilateral relationship, including a strong security assistance and cooperation relationship. The exact quote from my speech was: “The precise contours of that long-term relationship with Iraq, including our security relationship, are beginning to take shape as we move forward in implementing the Strategic Framework Agreement, signed with the Iraq government at the same time as the Security Agreement in November 2008, and will be further defined in the coming months once a new Iraqi government is formed and is ready to have more detailed conversations.”
Matthew also reports: “Regarding the renegotiation of the SOFA, it is not going to happen.” In my remarks and during Q&A I did not say anything about renegotiating or not renegotiating the SOFA. What I said was that the drawdown of our forces, consistent with the current Security Agreement (or SOFA), was on track, and that General Odierno is comfortable with how the responsible drawdown is proceeding.
Matthew Irvine then responds:
Secretary Kahl is right to point out that the Strategic Framework Agreement has already been inked. However, as he states, much of its implementation remains undefined. The outcome of Sunday’s election will determine our Iraqi partners, or lack thereof, in the ongoing SFA process. Kahl was optimistic that the elections and these discussions will demonstrate the strong bilateral U.S.-Iraq relationship. Others are more skeptical of those chances for success.
Secondly, although there was no explicit reference to recent debates over the renegotiation of the SOFA agreement or General Odierno’s troop request/non-request, it was my interpretation that Kahl was to have none of it. Myth #1 rejected the assumption that large numbers of troops will be required for the long term. In addition, emphasizing that General Odierno himself recommended the existing withdrawal timelines and troop levels seemed to be a clear refutation of recent media reports to the contrary.
Tom again: Colin’s phrase “further defined in the coming months” could prove to be mighty interesting.
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