As U.S. combat troops prepare to withdraw from Iraq’s cities, Anthony Cordesman, one of the top military analysts on Iraq from the Center for Strategic and International Studies, argues that the administration needs to build up support for a long-term presence there. This is a position that he has consistently called for. Cordesman worries that too much emphasis is being put on withdrawal, when the goal should be institutionalizing support for Iraq so that it can become a strong U.S. ally in the region. This is especially important because Cordesman does not believe that the U.S. has won in Iraq, but rather will continue to face challenges there before Iraq becomes a stabile and independent state. Cordesman wrote about these issues in a memorandum to General Ray Odierno after a recent trip to Iraq.
The main problems America faces in Iraq today are not what they use to be. Violence is down, and the Iraqi security forces are better. The sectarian war is over, and he does not believe that the Sunnis and Shiites want to return to fighting each other. Rather the main divisions today are over politics. The two main ones are between Arabs and Kurds, and with Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and his critics. The ethnic divisions are now the most pressing issue in his opinion as tensions are rising between Arabs and Kurds, and the two sides are losing patience with each other. Politically, Iraq is still dealing with integrating the Sunnis, and they themselves still lack strong leadership. This struggle has now become entangled with the Prime Minister, as the Sunnis have become the major opponent of Maliki trying to assert power.
Iraq faces an additional problem developing its economy. Iraq is almost completely dependent upon oil for revenues. That industry and the rest are all underdeveloped. Iraq needs to diversify, and open up to foreign investment so that it can build up its infrastructure and provide better services. The Iraqi government has been incapable of doing either so far, even with better security. Cordesman believes that Baghdad lacks the knowledge of how to create effective business deals and legislation, and politicians are too caught up in either defending their country against the perceived threats of foreign corporations or thinking about the possible profits, rather than on how to make things better.
Cordesman believes that these two issues will require constant attention and mediation by the Americans. The main tool he believes in using is aid. First, the U.S. needs to maintain its level of financial assistance flowing to Iraq. This is especially hard now with most Americans focused upon getting out of Iraq and the economic crisis at home. The U.S. also needs to help with the country’s political and economic troubles. American aid and mediation for example, could help integrate the Kurdish peshmerga into the security forces, an idea that is now dead due to the political divisions. This could assure the Kurds of security, while allowing Baghdad to continue with its plans of expanding its military. On the economic side, the U.S. should provide business models for Iraq to improve their contacts with foreign companies. The Americans have been working to revive the State Owned Enterprises, which have the potential to add much needed jobs as well. The U.S. should also get the World Bank involved with development more because the U.S. presence will shrink with the withdrawal of combat forces. To accomplish this the U.S. needs to maintain both military and civilian advisers in Iraq past the 2011 deadline for withdrawal.
Cordesman found that some planning for this is already being done in Iraq. The military especially is trying to transition from a security operation to a rebuilding mode. He did not see as much evidence of that on the civilian side however. Too many political and economic plans he saw were focused upon finishing specific programs rather than looking at the bigger picture of what needs to be done in the future.
Overall, Cordesman argues that the U.S. will be remembered for what they leave behind in Iraq, rather than on how they got there. The U.S. military and diplomatic staff in Iraq is thinking this way, but he’s not sure Washington is. Too much emphasis is being put on short-term goals such as pulling out of the cities this summer, and the withdrawal in 2011. Cordesman, like many other American Iraq experts, believes that the U.S. should have a long-term presence in Iraq that may last as long as 2020 or further. Unless the administration begins setting the groundwork for this by telling the public and Congress of the sacrifices needed, and the journey ahead, no one will support it, and Cordesman worries that will mean all the blood and money spent in Iraq will go to waste.
This will ultimately come down to whether President Obama wants to make this kind of commitment. There will be a diplomatic presence in Iraq no matter what. His real task is deciding on whether he will maintain troops there or not. He has been very open to his military commanders, and they will assuredly ask for tens of thousands of American advisers to stay past 2011. Coming up with the money for a robust assistance package however after most combat troops are out will be much harder as the public and Congress have already lost interest in Iraq.
The main problem with Cordesman and other similar analysts is that they often overlook the system of dependence the Iraqis have built up upon the Americans, which a long-term presence will only continue. Cordesman mentions this once when discussing the opening of the oil sector to foreign investment. He writes that Baghdad has offered oil contracts, but then expects Washington to do the rest of the work, pushing international companies to sign them. This is true for a whole range of other issues as well. As reported earlier, the U.S. has spent millions trying to build up the maintenance and logistics capacity of the Iraqi Army, but they have refused responsibility for much of it, leading to the Americans to do most of the work instead. The Americans need to get the Iraqis to do more rather than hold their hands for the next ten years. That’s basically what Cordesman and others want the administration to do. They want every issue in Iraq to be dealt with before a full withdrawal. This will not be like the U.S. presence in South Korea either as President Bush once suggested, because Iraq is likely to see violence during that entire stay. The Obama White House needs to do a cost-benefit analysis of what its willing to expend on Iraq, and how much responsibility they want to have for it because Cordesman, other Iraq experts, and the U.S. military are asking for an open-ended commitment.
Cordesman, Anthony, “Observations From a Visit to Iraq,” 6/15/09
Gwertzman, Bernard, “U.S. ‘Winning’ Unpopular War in Iraq, but ‘Losing’ Popular War in Afghanistan,” Council on Foreign Relations, 9/8/08
Nagl, John and Burton, Brian, “After the Fire: Shaping the Future U.S. Relationship with Iraq,” Center for a New American Security, June 2009