My name is Michael Gaubinger and I am working at the Education for Peace in Iraq Center for the summer of 2008. I will be entering my junior year at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst in the fall and am studying political science.
On Friday, June 13, the Brookings Institute hosted Senior Fellows Michael O'Hanlon and Kenneth Pollack for a discussion of their recent visit to Iraq. The discussion was called "Iraq: One Year Later." The fact-finding trip was sponsored by the Department of Defense and, while on the trip, they met with American and British soldiers, Iraqi government officials, and other Iraqis. They were unable to meet with very many Iraqi civilians, so their report is not an accurate gauge of the pulse on the street. The discussion began with a brief lecture by each individual about his impressions of the current situation in Iraq. Both men highlighted the improvement in security. O’Hanlon commented that, “This has been the spring of the beginning of the blossoming of the Iraq security forces.” Did the surge work? O’Hanlon says: “Since 2007, Iraq has seen an eighty percent reduction in violence against citizens as measured by the United States military, the Iraqi government, and even some independent sources.” He also stressed the increasing sense of control by the Iraqi government. Great challenges still exist, but the trend-line is positive. Pollack also noted that Iraqi security forces have emerged as a factor for the first time and are now contributing to the coalition effort. There are now 560,000 Iraqi Security Forces and that number is growing by 100,000 troops per year. The training system is working and as many as ten Iraqi brigades are combat ready now. The first wave of problems have been identified and confronted. Now, the United States faces the task of solving the old problems while shifting its focus to the second wave of problems. While the military and police are growing strong, Iraq’s civilian institutions remain weak. The progress of Iraqi regiments and security forces is a large contributor to the reduction in civilian violence in Iraq. For the nearly five-million Iraqi refugees and internally displaced persons, a sense of security and safety is a crucial step towards helping these individuals return home.
O’Hanlon and Pollack were asked about the potential for a decrease in American involvement in Iraq through the withdrawal of U.S. forces from the region. Both agreed that an immediate withdrawal would be dangerous and set back the progress that they described. Furthermore, any reduction in current troop levels must be based on progress and not set to a calendar. O’Hanlon stressed that improvements in the mind-set of the Iraqi government were, in part due to the pressure applied by the Democratic leadership which reinforced the notion that American presence in Iraq must not be taken for granted by the Iraqi government. To ensure continued support from the United States, the Iraqi government must match the effort of the United States. According to Pollack, the general election in Iraq in 2009 represents a key moment politically within Iraq which could either cement and solidify the improvements or reverse them. Therefore, America withdrawal of troops before the elections could have dire consequences.
Planting the seeds of sustainable economic development is one of the first steps in redressing the humanitarian needs of Iraq. O’Hanlon and Pollack were asked about the current state of the Iraqi economy, specifically at the individual level. Oil exports are the backbone of Iraq’s economy, accounting for 98% of its revenue. Although oil exports are high and profitable for Iraq, they painted a bleak picture of life for the average citizen. Healthcare is poor and infant mortality rates are rising. There is not enough potable water. Unemployment is high and, among Iraqi civilians, there are no optimistic expectations of improvement. Due to the poor state of the economy, the return of refugees and internally displaced persons is a greater concern. Pollack suggested that an Iraqi government initiated housing project would help the economy by providing jobs and creating houses for some of the millions of displaced citizens.
A core component of the security improvement is sectarian separation. So far, approximately one-half of the sectarian separation has occurred, but there are some important concerns about the long-term sustainability of the recent improvements, which are due to forced ethnic division. What will happen when the walls are taken down? They were also asked about the current debate over the status of forces agreement. I will discuss this further in an upcoming blog. The final question directly addressed the willingness of the United States to take in refugees from Iraq. In 2008, the United States government promised to take in 7,000 refugees from Iraq, while Sweden is expected to take in 20,000 displaced persons. Pollack credited the low number of Iraqi refugees in America to fears by the Department of Homeland Security that the United States would be letting potential terrorists into the country; fears he categorized as foolish and repugnant.
O’Hanlon and Pollack both agree that Iraq faces many great challenges and unforeseen obstacles, but that the nation shows signs of improvement. Iraqi security forces are standing up as we transition to a plan where Iraqi forces are in the lead with American support, rather than the United States playing the lead role.