This Week at War: The Iraq Gamble

Can Obama turn the page on the war he never wanted?

NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP/Getty Images
NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP/Getty Images
NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP/Getty Images

Hoping for the best, planning for the worst in Iraq

On Aug. 31, U.S. President Barack Obama announced the end of the American combat mission in Iraq. After expressing his gratitude to the soldiers who served there, Obama could scarcely hide his eagerness to "turn the page" on to other subjects, most notably the shambling U.S. economy. Obama promised a long-term American commitment to Iraq, the implementation of which he will no doubt fully delegate to others. The U.S. government now foresees an impressively powerful Iraqi army, almost ready to defend the country on its own when the last U.S. soldier leaves in December 2011. But this is Iraq, where political chaos, coups, and civil war never seem far from the surface. What strategies might the U.S. government have on the shelf should any of Iraq's numerous political fault lines erupt?

Writing for ForeignPolicy.com, Colin Kahl, deputy assistant defense secretary for the Middle East, describes the U.S. government's vision of its long-term relationship with Iraq. According to Kahl, the existing Strategic Framework Agreement, signed in November 2008, establishes the foundation for the long-term relationship after December 2011. Beyond 2011, the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad will establish an Office of Security Cooperation, similar to other such offices the U.S. government maintains with other allies in the region.

Hoping for the best, planning for the worst in Iraq

On Aug. 31, U.S. President Barack Obama announced the end of the American combat mission in Iraq. After expressing his gratitude to the soldiers who served there, Obama could scarcely hide his eagerness to "turn the page" on to other subjects, most notably the shambling U.S. economy. Obama promised a long-term American commitment to Iraq, the implementation of which he will no doubt fully delegate to others. The U.S. government now foresees an impressively powerful Iraqi army, almost ready to defend the country on its own when the last U.S. soldier leaves in December 2011. But this is Iraq, where political chaos, coups, and civil war never seem far from the surface. What strategies might the U.S. government have on the shelf should any of Iraq’s numerous political fault lines erupt?

Writing for ForeignPolicy.com, Colin Kahl, deputy assistant defense secretary for the Middle East, describes the U.S. government’s vision of its long-term relationship with Iraq. According to Kahl, the existing Strategic Framework Agreement, signed in November 2008, establishes the foundation for the long-term relationship after December 2011. Beyond 2011, the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad will establish an Office of Security Cooperation, similar to other such offices the U.S. government maintains with other allies in the region.

This office’s principal task will be to further develop the higher-level combat and institutional capacities of the Iraqi military. In a recent briefing, Lt. Gen. Michael Barbero, the deputy commanding general for advising and training in Iraq, described plans to transition the Iraqi Army from a constabulary counterinsurgency force to a high-end conventional force focused on defending against the threat from Iran. The first installment of this transition includes an Iraqi purchase of $13 billion in weapons from the United States, which will include 140 M1 main battle tanks, similar to those used by the U.S. military. The Iraqi Air Force seeks to purchase 18 F-16 fighter-bombers from the United States. As an initial test of its emerging conventional capability, Barbero discussed the Iraqi Army’s plan to conduct a large-scale combined-arms training exercise in April 2011.

Although Barbero had high praise for its tactical leadership and combat experience, he made it clear that by 2012 the Iraqi Army will not have the conventional capability to defend the country’s borders. Nor will the Iraqi Air Force have the capability to defend the country’s airspace.

In his FP piece, Kahl listed Iraq’s unresolved political fissures. These include simmering Arab-Kurdish tension, the still-separate and powerful Kurdish peshmerga militia, the status of the Sons of Iraq militias, and the unsatisfactory political inclusion of Iraq’s Sunni Arabs. Overlaying all these problems is a government that inspires little confidence from either the people or potential foreign partners and investors.

Kahl and Barbero have described the future U.S.-Iraqi relationship if all goes smoothly. What are the U.S. government’s plans if one or more of Iraq’s political fault lines ruptures? In such a scenario, how will the United States protect its interests in the region and prevent adversaries from exploiting an unfortunate opportunity? Happily, the United States now has a bounty of personal relationships in Iraq it did not have seven years ago. In a worst-case scenario, those relationships could be trump cards. But who in the U.S. government is thinking about how to play that hand?

How to fight an insurgency-cartel

A Sept. 1 New York Times article discussed a budding alliance between local government officials along Somalia’s central coast and a pirate gang that has become wealthy and well-armed plying its trade in the Indian Ocean. The local government has recruited the pirates to help protect a coastal town from the violent Islamist al-Shabab militant group that seems to be sweeping up from the south. Pirate cousins in a nearby coastal village to the south have made the opposite bargain — they have thrown their money and military muscle in support of al-Shabab.

We should count on criminal-commercial enterprises such as Somalia’s pirates and Afghanistan’s opium smugglers to take practical measures to thrive while political or ideological wars swirl around them. The pirates and smuggling cartels might prefer to stay out of politics, but being in transportation businesses, such cartels will find it difficult to remain agnostic, especially if the political combatants are as well-armed, if not as wealthy, as the cartels. Better for the cartels to avoid unnecessary conflict and keep their traffic moving by working out deals, perhaps simultaneously with both sides. After such cartels add their wealth and firepower to a conflict, such wars are likely to reach higher levels of intensity and endurance.

The formation of alliances with criminal cartels, by both insurgents and counterinsurgents, is not limited to Somalia and southern Afghanistan. During its early 1990s fight against drug smuggler Pablo Escobar, the Colombian government formed a highly effective alliance with Los Pepes, a secretive and violent criminal gang thought to be member of a paramilitary drug-smuggling cartel. It took just a few months for this alliance to crush Escobar. Today in Mexico, some analysts think that the Mexican government is tacitly protecting the Sinaloa cartel, a charge President Felipe Calderón vigorously denies. With government support, one cartel could defeat its competitors and bring an end to the violence, an outcome the government can’t seem to manage on its own.

We can thus see why governments and insurgents would desire alliances with criminal cartels. For their part, cartels may not be interested in politics or ideology, but may feel the need to cooperate for short-term business reasons. But as I explained in a recent column, Mexico’s cartels are becoming increasingly political, employing coercion against the government and direct control over the media’s messages. As pressure on a cartel increases, from either competitors or the government, the cartel might feel the need to increase its appeal for support from the people, using an increasingly ideological or inspirational message to do so.

The latest models of insurgent organizations are arriving. They will combine the wealth of commercial-criminal operations with political and ideological appeals. Such an insurgency, with a broader and more diversified set of roots among the people, will be harder for governments to dig up. As we have seen elsewhere, governments may have to make their own deals with the criminal competition in order to fight back against the new insurgency-cartels.

Robert Haddick is managing editor of Small Wars Journal.

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