The Middle East Channel

Breaking Dawn: building a long-term strategic partnership with Iraq

Sept. 1 marks the change of the U.S. military mission in Iraq from combat to stability operations, successfully fulfilling the vision laid out by President Barack Obama at Camp LeJeuene in February 2009. Operation Iraqi Freedom has ended, and Operation New Dawn has begun. For the United States, this change of mission represents an important ...

AFP/Getty Images
AFP/Getty Images

Sept. 1 marks the change of the U.S. military mission in Iraq from combat to stability operations, successfully fulfilling the vision laid out by President Barack Obama at Camp LeJeuene in February 2009. Operation Iraqi Freedom has ended, and Operation New Dawn has begun. For the United States, this change of mission represents an important milestone in the transition from a primarily military-led effort in Iraq to a civilian-led one. This change of mission also marks a milestone in the full transition of responsibility for security to our Iraqi partners, continuing a process which began on Jan. 1, 2009, when the U.S.-Iraq Security Agreement (SA) came into effect.

Under President Obama’s direction, more than 90,000 U.S. forces have already responsibly departed Iraq. Over the next 16 months, the remaining 50,000-strong transitional force will focus on three primary missions: training, equipping, advising, and supporting the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF); partnered counter-terrorism operations; and protecting and enabling U.S. and international civilian partners in their continued capacity-building efforts. Our forces will also continue their responsible drawdown in compliance with the SA by Dec. 31, 2011. The growing capabilities of the ISF, coupled with the deepening commitment among Iraqis to resolving their outstanding grievances through the political process, have allowed the drawdown to continue without undermining security. 

Although our military presence and mission have changed, no one should interpret our troop drawdown as U.S. disengagement from Iraq. On the contrary, the United States remains, and will continue to remain, fully engaged in its whole-of-government approach to encouraging the development of a sovereign, stable, and self-reliant Iraq. The nature of our engagement is shifting, as it must, but our commitment to Iraq is undiminished. Instead of representing disengagement, the change of military mission should instead be viewed for what it is: the next natural step toward building a long-term strategic partnership based on mutual interests and mutual respect between the United States and a fully sovereign Iraq — a core objective we share with the Iraqi government and people.  

The reduction in U.S. forces and the transition to stability operations have been enabled by sustained improvement in the security situation over the past two years. Because al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) continues to wage periodic high-profile attacks against civilian targets designed to create the impression in the media and among the Iraqi public that the Iraqi government is unable to protect its citizens, this reduction in violence can sometimes be hard to appreciate. This has been especially the case in recent weeks, as violent extremists have sought to exploit Ramadan and the continued political turbulence associated with Iraq’s lengthy government formation process to create the false impression that the Iraqi government is incapable of maintaining security in the context of the U.S. drawdown. The terrorists also seek to craft the false narrative that they are driving us out.  

Nevertheless, while tragic for their victims, these horrific acts of terrorism have repeatedly failed to accomplish AQI’s objective: to spark a return to widespread insurgency and communal civil war. The numbers do not lie. Despite occasional spikes, overall levels of attacks and Iraqi civilian casualties have remained relatively constant at their lowest levels of the post-2003 period for more than two years (see Figure 1 and Figure 2), even as the ISF have assumed primary responsibility for security and our force numbers have declined from roughly 144,000 in January 2009 to 50,000 today. While there has been a slight uptick in attacks in August, the number of weekly security incidents has remained below January 2004 levels, and overall levels of violence are far below that experienced in 2006 and 2007. Ethno-sectarian deaths have also plummeted (see Figure 3). And over this same period, ISF and U.S. military fatalities have steeply declined (see Figure 4). 

One major reason for this decline in aggregate levels of violence is the fact that AQI is weaker than ever. What was once a nationwide insurgent organization with robust alliances with other Sunni militant groups is now an increasingly isolated terrorist group. The network’s finances, communications, and freedom of movement have been seriously degraded, and the leadership has been significantly weakened. Indeed, in the past six months, 34 out of the top 42 AQI leaders were either killed or detained in joint U.S.-Iraq counter-terrorism operations. Recent attacks are a reminder that AQI is still able to carry out periodic spectacular bombings, but these brutal acts have not incited wider violence, and the majority of AQI attacks have actually been small-scale and relatively ineffective in nature, indicating the network’s aggregate decline. 

The Shia militia threat has also diminished and been transformed since the height of sectarian violence in 2006 and 2007. Though Moqtada al-Sadr maintains a small armed wing called the Promised Day Brigade (PDB), he disbanded the much larger Mahdi Army in the aftermath of successful offensives against the militia in 2008, and the Sadrists have mostly shifted their focus to a combination of social activism and participation in the political process. Iran continues to provide lethal assistance to Shia militant groups, including the PDB, Kata’ib Hizballah, and Asa’ib Ahl al-Haqq, but these groups do not enjoy significant popular support, and their activities have failed to shake Iraqi confidence in the government of Iraq or the ISF. 

The primary factor enabling the U.S. troop drawdown has been the growth and improvement of the ISF. Counterinsurgency campaigns are never won with foreign troops alone; they are ultimately won through the actions of legitimate host nation governments that enjoy the support of their people and by indigenous security forces capable of protecting the civilian population. Since Jan. 1, 2009, the ISF have been in the lead on security operations, a role they have more capably embraced with each passing month.  

While the U.S. continues to provide vital support to the ISF — training, equipping, mentoring, advising, and providing critical technical enablers — the Iraqis are in charge, and they simply no longer need such large numbers of U.S. forces to help them keep the violence in check. The ISF currently number approximately 660,000, comprising ground, naval, and air forces, counterterrorism units, and local and federal police. While AQI, Sunni insurgents, and Shia militants are still capable, they are not as capable as the ISF — and as a re
sult, extremists do not currently represent a strategic threat to the viability of the Iraqi state. The ISF have also remained professional and independent of political pressure despite the prolonged period of uncertainty associated with Iraq’s government formation negotiations. In contrast to much of Iraqi history, the military has so far served as a protector of the political process rather than a participant in it. This professionalism is also reflected in Iraqi public confidence in the ISF. Indeed, for well over a year, research by the United States Forces – Iraq (USF-I) has consistently shown that a large majority of Iraqis believe the Iraqi army and police are capable of protecting them.  

Perhaps most critically, the drawdown has been enabled by the fact that a viable political process now exists as the enduring framework in which key questions of the distribution of power and resources can be resolved. The vast majority of Iraq’s major parties, factions, and communal groups — including many former militants — are now heavily invested in the political system. As Vice President Joseph Biden often remarks, “politics has broken out” in Iraq. It is often messy, as it is in even the most developed democracies, but the Iraqi commitment to the political process is real. Democracies are prone to heated rhetoric, and we have certainly seen that in the period before and after the most recent Iraqi national elections. And, as we have witnessed in recent weeks, violence will continue to challenge this process. But as long as Iraqis stay committed to resolving their differences through the force of words rather than the force of arms, Iraq is unlikely to sink back into widespread violence. 

Iraq continues its steady progress toward becoming a sovereign, stable and self-reliant state. Still, more must be done to fully consolidate this progress, including the formation of a government that is inclusive, representative, and capable of addressing the needs of the Iraqi people for security and improved services. Moreover, in the months and years to come, Iraq will continue to face a series of other political challenges that must be addressed to make stability enduring.  

First, although Iraqi political parties generally remain committed to the political process, the protracted negotiations over government formation demonstrate that Iraq’s political climate is still characterized by too much distrust and too little faith in government institutions. Resolving these problems will require time, patient efforts to strengthen and reform government institutions, realistic expectations and continued commitment by all sides to compromise, and continued international assistance, as they do in most post-conflict societies.  

Second, although Iraq’s Sunni population has largely embraced the new political order and turned decisively against AQI and other insurgents, there will continue to be a threat of violent recidivism as long as their full integration into state institutions remains incomplete. While the insurgency appears too weak and the state too strong for a wide-scale return to organized violence in the near-term, the long-term concern is real. Therefore, the United States will continue to make issues like Sons of Iraq integration, meaningful Sunni inclusion into governing coalitions and institutions, and non-sectarian behavior by the ISF top priorities in our engagements with the Iraqi government. 

Finally, disputes between the central government in Baghdad and the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) over territory, oil, and security forces continue to pose a threat to Iraq’s long-term stability. The United States remains deeply engaged in helping Iraqis resolve these issues at the tactical and strategic level, and we continue to work closely with the United Nations Assistance Mission for Iraq to identify workable political solutions.  

In recognition of these challenges, USF-I will continue to facilitate the participation of central government and KRG security forces in the series of joint checkpoints, patrols, and coordination centers known as the Combined Security Mechanisms (CSMs) in the disputed areas. The CSMs are designed to improve coordination and transparency in addressing security challenges, while simultaneously building trust from the bottom up, and they have thus far been very successful in this regard. Moreover, in recognition of the continued need to stay actively engaged in addressing Arab-Kurd disputes, our planned post-2011 civilian presence in Iraq will also be heavily concentrated in the north.  

Iraqi security forces have made great strides in recent years, but they will continue to require external assistance for some time. For this reason, the U.S. transitional force, organized around six Advise and Assist Brigades and one Advise and Assist Task Force, will continue to train and support the ISF and conduct targeted, partnered counterterrorism operations. Moreover, based on a detailed assessment by USF-I, the Obama administration identified the remaining gaps in the ability of the ISF to provide for Iraq’s internal security and obtain a foundational capability for external defense by the end of 2011, and formulated a plan to address these shortfalls. Based on this analysis, we have requested additional funds from Congress to help fund Iraq’s minimum essential capabilities — assistance that is crucial to facilitate the successful completion of the responsible drawdown of our forces over the next 16 months. 

Beyond 2011, the focal point for our continued security assistance and cooperation relationship with Iraq will be a new Office of Security Cooperation-Iraq (OSC-I) established under the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad. The OSC-I will be similar to offices of military cooperation found elsewhere in the region. As is the case in other partner nations, the OSC-I will provide the mechanism for the United States to continue support to the ISF, including training on weapons systems purchased by the Iraqis, military exchanges, and joint military exercises. 

As the U.S. military continues its responsible drawdown, the Obama administration has also begun ramping up U.S. civilian effort to help Iraq develop its economy, build governance capacity, and address remaining political challenges. The State Department is reorienting its on-the-ground presence to ensure robust diplomatic engagement across Iraq. Beyond its large embassy in Baghdad, the State Department is planning for two consulates in Erbil and Basra, and Embassy Branch Offices in Mosul and Kirkuk. From these locations, the United States will continue to help Iraqis utilize the political process to address outstanding issues and help strengthen governing institutions at the national and local level.  

After years of a Department of Defense-led effort to train and equip Iraq’s local and federal police, the State Department is also moving forward with planning to assume responsibility for police training, with a particular emphasis on developing higher-order skills and ministerial capacity. The goal is to enable Iraq to eventually achieve “police primacy”: a situation in which the police have primary responsibility for internal security, freeing Iraq’s armed forces to concentrate on external defense. Achieving this objective will require additional assistance and will take time, but it is crucial for Iraq’s stability and the long-term health of Iraqi democracy. 

All of these activities are aimed at strengthening our engagement with a fully sovereign Iraq, even as our forces redeploy and the nature of our engagement evolves. The foundation for our long-term partnership with Iraq already exists in the form of the Strategic Framework Agreement (SFA), a second compact that accompanied the signing of the SA in November 2008. The SFA establishes mechanisms to deepen long-term diplomatic, cultural, economic, scient
ific, and security ties between our two countries. It also provides a vital platform to help our Iraqi partners become more fully integrated into the international community. As we approach the end of the SA, the SFA will take on increasing importance, and we look forward to working with the new Iraqi government to fully energize the SFA’s multiple avenues for enduring cooperation. 

A long-term strategic partnership with Iraq, based on mutual interests and mutual respect, presents manifold advantages for the United States. In the context of long-term security interests, the United States and Iraq have a number of common concerns, both within Iraq and in the region, including counterterrorism, counter-proliferation, maritime security, and air defense. These common interests underlie the shared U.S. and Iraqi commitment to regional peace and stability, Iraq’s regional integration, and the free flow of commerce. Continued security assistance and cooperation through the OSC-I will assist in addressing these common concerns. Continued U.S. support to the ISF, including joint training exercises and military exchanges, will also help to ensure steady improvements in Iraqi capabilities and, over time, improved interoperability that will facilitate Iraq’s long-term cooperation with the United States and other regional states to address common challenges. 

There are numerous non-security advantages to our partnership as well. Iraq is a nascent democracy and, over time and with sustained U.S. and international assistance, could potentially play a leadership role in regional political dynamics. As President Obama made clear in his Camp LeJeune speech, the United States remains committed to Iraq’s continued development toward a just, representative, and accountable state. This is clear from our efforts to encourage meaningful institutional reform and inclusive government during the current government formation period. In a region still characterized by too little political freedom and respect for human rights, Iraq’s continued democratic development remains an important interest for both Iraq and the United States. Therefore, moving forward, we will continue to assist our Iraqi partners in strengthening democratic institutions and respect for the rule of law. 

Iraq now has the opportunity, unique in its recent history, to be a force for regional stability. For decades, Iraq was a driver of instability in the Middle East. In the 1970s and 1980s, Iraq aggressively aspired toward regional hegemony. In the 1990s, Iraq invaded its weaker neighbor Kuwait, triggering a war and more than a decade of sanctions and isolation. The fall of Saddam Hussein’s regime addressed one source of regional strife, but the turmoil and violence that descended upon post-Saddam Iraq created its own sources of rippling instability. Now, with dramatic improvements in Iraq’s security situation, continued economic development, determined Iraqi efforts to consolidate hard-fought gains through the political process, and continued U.S. engagement, Iraq has a real opportunity to chart a new path — one in which a fully sovereign Iraq contributes to regional peace and prosperity in partnership with the United States and the wider international community. Wednesday’s change of mission represents an important milestone on this path.

Colin H. Kahl is the Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for the Middle East.

Colin H. Kahl is the inaugural Steven C. Hazy senior fellow at the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies' Center for International Security and Cooperation and a strategic consultant at the Penn-Biden Center for Diplomacy and Global Engagement. From 2014 to 2017, he was deputy assistant to President Barack Obama and national security advisor to Vice President Joe Biden. Twitter: @ColinKahl

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