With the deadline for the withdrawal all U.S. troops from Iraq less than 100 days away, nobody seems to know whether troops will be allowed to stay, how many, and under what conditions. Even the basic parameters of a possible Iraqi request for a follow-on U.S. military training presence remain largely unknown and caught in the labyrinth of local politics. This uncertainty is snarling planning efforts and has certainly irked Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, who famously exhorted Iraq's political leaders to "dammit, make a decision" during his first trip to Baghdad this summer.
Why exactly is a troop decision taking so long? It is certainly a highly sensitive matter, but the deadline was set in 2008 and has hardly sneaked up on anyone. The answer relates to the incredibly complex nature of the trade-offs involved. Iraqis must weigh their known security vulnerabilities against the deep unpopularity of a continued foreign troop presence in their country. At the same time, and through the same decision, they are effectively calibrating the balance of their relationship between the United States and Iran. Overlaid on this is the funhouse mirror of Iraqi domestic politics, where in some circumstances a lose-lose is preferred to a win-win.
United States and Iraqi officials have yet to yet to set out a compelling and shared vision for a post-2011 mission for U.S. troops that responds to these trade-offs (as opposed to weighing the raw number of troops likely to be politically palatable in both countries). Now the clock is ticking, and little time remains to help the Iraqis undertake a genuine examination of the pros and cons of various options on this highly consequential decision for their country.
The U.S. presence in Iraq remains deeply unpopular, and few Iraqi politicians are willing to go on the public record in support of an extended presence. However, there is a broad acknowledgment across the Iraqi polity of the country's inability to defend itself against external threats. After eight years of building counterinsurgency capabilities to combat internal threats, the Iraqi Security Forces have improved their domestic capacity. But they have limited ability to defend Iraq's airspace and land borders, secure its offshore oil export terminals in the Gulf or conduct the type of cross-force combined arms maneuvers necessary to repel a conventional external attack.
Iraqis do not fear that they will actually be invaded, but they understand that the lack of a credible deterrent will leave them open to coercive diplomacy in a very tough neighborhood. In recent weeks there have been popular protests against sustained artillery campaigns and airstrikes by Iran and Turkey in northern Iraq's Kurdistan region as well as demonstrations opposing Kuwaiti plans to construct a new mega-port in the narrow Khor Abdullah waterway shared by the two countries (Iraqis allege that building the port is a hostile act that will strangle Iraqi trade). Iraqis are also worried that they may need to act to secure their western border from the fallout of widespread unrest and sectarian conflict in Syria.
Even the fiercely anti-American Sadrist movement shares this assessment of Iraq's external defense limitations. According to a participant in the internal Iraqi leadership talks on a U.S. troop extension, the Sadrist representatives have displayed concern and asked questions about how the country will protect itself from external threats after 2011. While the Sadrists obviously oppose the prescribed remedy of U.S. trainers, focusing the discussion on these well known weaknesses puts an onus on them to come up with serious alternatives to address the problem.
This suggests that Iraqis could agree on a U.S. military training mission tightly focused upon addressing specific universally acknowledged defense deficits. This would include clear timelines for overcoming these capability shortfalls, as well as options for how some tasks, such as air and maritime defense, could be provided offshore by backup troops based in Kuwait and U.S. naval assets in the Gulf. A clearly delimited training mission of this sort is significantly easier for an Iraqi politician to support publicly than a mission perceived as amorphous in scope or duration, which would feed persistent local suspicions that the United States desires to control Iraq's politics and resources permanently. This is reflected in the language used by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki in a recent interview in which he said that there will "be no foreign soldiers in Iraq" after this year but "the presence of experts and trainers...[is] normal and common practice internationally."
The management of Baghdad's two most important external relationships -- U.S. and Iranian -- also looms large over the technical discussion of Iraqi security needs. Since 2003 Iran has benefitted from the ouster of its old foe Saddam Hussein, and has steadily expanded its economic and political influence in Iraq (especially in the south of the country). Through its support for Shiite militias in particular, Tehran also directly contributed to Iraq's descent into sectarian civil war during the 2005 - 2007 period. At present, many members of Iraq's Shiite-led government have close ties to Tehran and are generally desirous of good relations with the Islamic Republic. However, this should not be exaggerated. Prime Minister Maliki and Iraq's other leaders do not want to become completely beholden to their eastern neighbor, who is a centuries-old rival that Iraq fought a horrific almost decade-long war with during the 1980s.
Iraq likewise does not desire full alignment in the pro-U.S. camp in the region. Its leaders remain deeply suspicious of the United States' Sunni allies in the Gulf, and public opinion broadly shares the resentments throughout the region of U.S. policy towards Israel and other regional issues. But many Iraqi leaders do seek significant economic and military relationships with the U.S. and feel that in their currently weakened state a U.S. foil is required to offset Iran's long reach into Iraq. The trick from the Iraqi standpoint is how to obtain this external balance without incurring the destabilizing blowback of a Tehran that feels threatened by the presence of U.S. military trainers. Here it may be worthwhile to explore the opening hinted at last week by the Iranian Ambassador to Iraq. Hassan Danaei Far indicated that Iran welcomes powerful, well-trained armed forces in Iraq and, in an apparent policy change, said that Iran does not care, and it is up to the Iraqis to decide, who does the training.
U.S. officials could now test Tehran's new line by publicly and privately clarifying that the type of training mission being discussed with the Iraqi Government is not one that would enable the United States to project offensive military power in the region. Any new deal with the Iraqi Government covering an extended U.S. presence could also maintain the formulation set out in Article 27 of the expiring Security Agreement, in which the U.S. provides Iraq a defensive security guarantee. (The article states that the United States will consider Iraqi appeals for assistance in the face of internal and external threats or aggression, but also that Iraq will not be used as a "launching or transit point for attacks against other countries.")
The final area of complexity on the troop extension relates to the main schism in Iraqi domestic politics, that is the competition between Prime Minister Maliki's Shiite National Alliance and former Prime Minister Ayad Allawi's mainly Sunni Iraqiyya coalition. Virtually every major government and legislative action is now filtered through the prism of which man gains and which loses, including the decision on a U.S. military presence. Such zero-sum politics make compromise difficult, nuanced public discourse based on national interests unlikely, and a major legislative accomplishment such as parliamentary endorsement of a new security cooperation agreement even more challenging (especially since the Parliament just went into recess for six weeks).
This is important because U.S. officials have concluded that parliamentary approval is legally required under the Iraqi constitution for privileges and immunities to be conferred upon any U.S. soldiers acting as trainers. Iraqi leaders are meanwhile generally against providing such coverage given notorious incidents like the abuse of Iraqi detainees at the Abu Ghraib prison in 2004 and past controversial actions of private security companies in Iraq, such as the four former Blackwater contractors accused of manslaughter in connection with shootings that led to the death of 17 Iraqi civilians in Baghdad's Nisour Square in 2007. It already appears that this issue could become the major sticking point to reaching a mutually satisfactory deal. Finding a workable arrangement on this delicate issue will be difficult, but should be possible if the focus is on an overall mission directly responds to an Iraqi consensus on their critical needs. It will however be likely next to impossible if the immunities issue and other aspects of the troop decision become political cudgels for different sides to wield against each other in the arena of Iraqi domestic politics.
So how then do the two main political groupings in Iraq evaluate their interests and possible political gains and losses with respect to a possible extended U.S. military presence? At first glance, Iraqiyya would appear to have the most to gain from a troop deal. U.S. forces provide some insurance against the possibility of Iranian subjugation of Baghdad (which is an existential fear for Iraqiyya's Sunni base) as well as a check on the worrying trend of the centralization of power around Prime Minister Maliki. The Prime Minister also has gains to realize from a possible training mission, including the building up of the capabilities of the armed forces he commands and gaining some freedom of maneuver vis-a-vis Iran. But for Maliki these gains are somewhat offset by the constraints on his actions in Iraq's domestic politics that a U.S. training mission might create.
Yet despite the training mission appearing to be a more straightforward proposition for Iraqiyya and Allawi, they have not so far supported it. Rather Iraqiyya seems to evaluate the set of issues related to the troop extension debate based on how it might be used to achieve their ultimate goal of replacing Maliki as Prime Minister. The coalition hopes to lay full responsibility for a politically unpopular U.S. troop decision at Maliki's feet and has conditioned its support for a training mission on power-sharing concessions from the Prime Minister.
In pursuit of these tactical gains, Iraqiyya appears willing to run the real risk of a lose-lose outcome of no follow-on U.S. training mission. This is significant because given the strong opposition of the Sadrists to a U.A. troop presence, the support of Maliki, Iraqiyya and the Kurds will likely all be necessary for any training mission to ultimately be endorsed by the Iraqi Parliament. This suggests that local and regional outreach to Iraqiyya may be useful to avoid drowning the important training mission debate in political machinations.
U.S. officials could communicate to Iraqiyya leaders a strongly shared concern regarding the erosion of the separation of powers in Iraq and offer tangible suggestions for how this trend might be ameliorated. But Iraqiyya should also be reminded that past efforts to address this sensitive issue by loading it onto international security agreements failed (a political reform document attached to the original 2008 Status of Forces Agreement went ignored and unimplemented). On the regional level, U.S. diplomats may wish to approach the Arab countries that have financially and politically backed Allawi and Iraqiyya in order to stem Iranian influence in Iraq and pose the question whether their favored coalition's current course of action is actually promoting this goal.
Over the last eight years, Iraqi leaders have consistently played major decisions all the way down to the wire. There is little reason to believe that the politically explosive decision on a U.S. military presence will be any different. But if U.S. officials believe that an extension is in U.S. interests, now is the time to become more forward leaning and set out clear options for a mission that responds to the shared and separate needs of Iraqi decision makers.
Sean Kane is a senior program officer at the United States Institute of Peace and a Truman Security Fellow. The views expressed here are his own.
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