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Transition for Two: US-Iraq Relations June 1, 2010

Posted by Guest Blogger in Analysis.
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Ellen Laipson is the President and CEO of the Stimson Center.  She recently completed a report The Future of US-Iraq Relations and spent 10 days in Iraq in May.

by Ellen Laipson

President Obama is sticking to his guns on the timing of the withdrawal of US troops from Iraq.  He has not been persuaded by the nervous concerns of some in the US military and Iraqi politicians and defense officials who fear that the 2011 deadline could lead to a sharp erosion of security in Iraq and could undermine the objective of leaving Iraq in conditions of stability and peace.  Things would have to change dramatically on the ground to override the budgetary and political imperatives that drive his policy.

I’m on Obama’s side on this one.  First, the withdrawal timetable was developed carefully by Bush Administration and Iraqi officials, based on planning metrics for the steadily increasing capabilities of the Iraqi security forces and police.  Generals Petreus and Odierno, who know the conditions on the ground better than anyone, would need to make a compelling argument to slow down the process, and they’re not doing so.

Secondly, the Iraqis seem to be undervaluing how far they’ve come, and should embrace the degree of sovereignty they’ve achieved.  Sure, they still don’t trust each other across historic and ethnic or sectarian divides, but they should be proud of the progress made.  They are now in control of the cities, and US forces are largely contained on one consolidated base in Baghdad.  The occasional acts of violence by al-Qaeda or others do not erode entirely the fact that Iraq has a reconfigured security sector that is doing its job.  To stop the clock on the US withdrawal would deepen a psychological dependency on the US as big brother that would not suit US-Iraq relations for the long term. (Photo: US Air Force).

Having said that, the 2008 agreements that govern withdrawal and provide a “strategic framework” for the future of US-Iraq relations would certainly permit both parties to revisit the timetable or make other mutually agreed adjustments.  The US has its hands tied until the Iraqis form a new government, and that new government would have to initiate the process to negotiate a follow-on agreement.  Should such negotiations take place, they would need to be built on a shared commitment to Iraq’s success, not a sign of failure or setback in our declared goals.

In his May 22 speech at West Point, President Obama defined success as “an Iraq that provides no haven to terrorists; a democratic Iraq that is sovereign and stable and self-reliant.”  None of these categories have been fully achieved, but, compared to Afghanistan, they are relatively credible and plausible goals.  The US and Iraq can continue to work together, with or without a new security agreement, on training missions for the police, on professionalization of the armed forces, on procurement strategies, etc.  The US, along with the United Nations and various European and Asian countries, is working with Iraqis on institution building in government and in civil society.  We’re also trying to prevent the neighbors from destabilizing the country.

Not all Iraqis are democrats, to be sure, and one does worry that the political culture that is emerging from several national and provincial elections still has elements of patronage, corruption, and inefficiencies.  The fluidity of parties and coalitions looks more like Israel than a more predictable two party system.  US ability to influence or shape the politics of Iraq is declining from the exceptional period of occupation.  Some Iraqis regret that, and wish the US were more assertive in helping the new government selection.

As we think about long-term US engagement in Iraq, the contrast between the current military and civilian forms of engagement is noteworthy, and is one of the challenges of the transition.  Basically, the military are operating deeper in the society in some ways, with quite personal bonds to their Iraqi counterparts at various levels.  They lead the provincial reconstruction teams (PRTs) and therefore have more access to different parts of the country. (This was not the case in earlier years when the mission entailed heavy combat and various Iraqi groups were the adversary.)

By contrast, the diplomats rotate in on short tours, many without any prior regional experience, and they are more cloistered by security protocols in the Embassy compound. Diplomats and civilians do help staff the PRTs and are developing plans for at least two consulates, one in the north and one in Basra.  They also believe, as do I, in the “normalization” of the relationship and the desirability of treating Iraq like we do other sovereign middle powers.  So the civilian side appears to be more comfortable with the 2011 transition, while many in the military reflect the Iraqis’ anxieties.

Over time, the civilian side will actually have responsibility for a major part of the security relationship: the police training program that will comprise the lion’s share of US assistance to Iraq (over $2 billion requested for this purpose for FY2011).  So it may happen that the diplomats at the Embassy will become more attuned to security conditions, as the military forces dismantle their bases and head home.  Eventually, the content of the relationship has to expand beyond security; the civilians will be best equipped to define areas of shared interest in diverse sectors inside Iraq and in the region.

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