Best Defense

Crocker (and Tom R.) are wrong: The Iraqis won’t extend the U.S. presence

While Tom Ricks is away from his blog, he has selected a few of his favorite posts to re-run. We will be posting a few every day until he returns. This originally ran on April 18, 2011. Here’s a thoughtful response to the post I had last week about where the post-2011 U.S. military presence ...


While Tom Ricks is away from his blog, he has selected a few of his favorite posts to re-run. We will be posting a few every day until he returns. This originally ran on April 18, 2011.

Here’s a thoughtful response to the post I had last week about where the post-2011 U.S. military presence in Iraq might be based.

Meanwhile, on the Southern Iraq watch: Someone bombed a U.S. convoy near Hilla the other day.  

By Adam L. Silverman, Ph.D.
Best Defense guest Iraqi affairs analyst

While I appreciate both Ambassador Ryan Crocker’s remarks and forethought on this, as well as Mr. Ricks’ commentary, and keeping in mind that I’ve not been in Iraq since the end of 2008, I think that any meaningful attempt to renegotiate the security agreement, or parts of it, are very unlikely.

I do think that you’re going to see an ongoing, but comparatively small U.S. presence of trainers covered under the Security Force Advising concept, but we’re talking relatively small footprint here. The Iraqis, and here I’m referring to every major faction, have made it very, very clear beginning with our Sawha allies out in Anbar starting back in 2007, that they are waiting for us to leave. They are waiting for us to leave in order to settle scores. The Sunnis and non-expatriate Shiite that make up the Sawha and primary opposition that composed the Iraqiyya Party (which was disenfranchised from forming the most recent Iraqi government after winning the largest plurality due to Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s directing the power of the state at them in a successful attempt to reverse the electoral outcome) know they can’t really win a head on confrontation, but they’ve made it repeatedly clear that they are ready to fight (back). Maliki is waiting for us to go so that he can cut his forces loose on these folks once and for all and put an end to them. The Sadrists want us gone — badly! The Kurds want their own state and are just waiting for us to stop paying attention long enough so that they can find an opportune moment to declare independence. Moreover, given past and/or ongoing Iranian support for the bulk of the parties in the governing coalition (Dawa, Sadrists, the Kurds, ISCI/Badr) they won’t allow their proxies to agree to anything that significantly prolongs any significant U.S. presence. They’ll tolerate training of security forces as a large number of the Arab portion of the Iraqi Army (IA) are Badr Corps, which is tied directly to the Quds Force. So whatever we teach the IA, we’re teaching the Iranians. No need for subterfuge at all.

No one is going to argue harder than I that we have a moral responsibility to do right by the Iraqis, but I don’t see how staying helps us do so. We had actual legal requirements to do certain things, like fix the power grid, when we were officially recognized as an occupying power. Now we’re guests. Without a doubt the electrical infrastructure in Iraq was terrible when U.S. forces arrived in 2003 and the early attempts at repair and reconstruction led to the creation of new targets for the insurgent forces, but a lot of what we wound up doing wrong, or not doing at all, was based on what the CPA enshrined in their bizarre and ideologically driven attempts to turn Iraq into a test lab for all sorts of bizarre political and economic ideas. I remember being told that we weren’t to do anything to fix the Iraqi power grid as the Iraqis were going to privatize the power generation industry. My understanding was that this was based on an earlier CPA decision to privatize power generation and distribution in Iraq, based on attempts to do it in the United States, which, as many have documented, have been largely disastrous and done nothing to improve the United States’ aging and crumbling power infrastructure. In Iraq not enough power doesn’t just mean no air conditioning, it also means not much water being pumped into the irrigation canals, which means little agricultural production. This has led to migrations of the population to towns and cities looking for work where they can be recruited to emplace IEDs and commit other bad acts; not because they hate Sunnis or Shiites or Kurds or Americans, but because they’re desperate for cash to feed their families. 

Despite all the hard work by the U.S. military, our coalition allies, and civilian agency partners that led to successes at the tactical and operational level, we have failed at the strategic level in Iraq. As General David Petraeus stated before testifying to Congress in April 2008: "Iraqi leaders have failed to take advantage of a reduction in violence to make adequate progress toward resolving their political differences." Part of the failure here was when the leverage was available to push the Iraqis towards societal reconciliation and the beginnings of societal/social reconstruction the Bush (43) Administration wasted the space, the COIN break if you will, by having AMB Crocker try to negotiate a SOFA agreement that the Iraqis wouldn’t and didn’t accept. At the same time negotiations were ongoing for provincial elections. As I’ve written before here at Best Defense and in other places too: the Iraqis rolled us on both sets of negotiations. They ran the clock out on us, forcing us into the security agreement as the U.N. occupation authority was running out and into blessing a hybrid electoral process for the provincial elections that was the worst possible combination — open list and proportional representation — if we wanted to overcome the problems with the 2005 elections. It also didn’t help that one of the State Department’s own election specialists did not understand the system that the Iraqi High Electoral Commission had put into place. I know he didn’t understand it because I had to explain how it was going to work to him at least five times and that was after he read the briefing paper I wrote on it for my brigade commander so that he would understand why it was a potential problem.

I appreciate that Crocker would like to do right by the Iraqis, I would like to do right by the Iraqis, but I just don’t see any way that they are going to allow significant numbers of American troops to stay. The major Iraqi factions don’t want a significant U.S. troop presence as it prevents them from settling their scores, which is what they really want to do. The Iranians that are direct patrons for Dawa and ISCI/Badr and indirect patrons to the Sadrists and the Kurds don’t want it and won’t allow it. They want us out of their near abroad as well. And how we’ve been positioning ourselves vis-a-vis the Arab Spring is making our other allies in the area very nervous too. I honestly hope I’m wrong about what is likely to happen in Iraq after U.S. forces draw down the rest of the way — but I think that the events of the last several years make that unlikely.

Adam L. Silverman is the culture and foreign language advisor at the U.S. Army War College. The views expressed here are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of the U.S. Army War College, the U.S. Army, or Daisuke Matsuzaka.

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at Twitter: @tomricks1

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