An Iraq View from Three Analysts Recently Returned

Three senior fellows of the Center for a New American Security, John Nagl, Colin Kahl, and Shawn Brimley, held a press briefing Aug. 13 at the center’s headquarters on Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, in which they recounted their observations on a recent trip to Iraq. The three traveled to Iraq on the invitation of Gen. David Petraeus, received high-level briefings, visited multiple Iraqi provinces, and spoke with a number of Iraqi politicians and citizens, according to CNAS.

Although the three experts differed on certain points, there was somewhat of a consensus about the reality of two parallel phenomena: 1) security gains in Iraq are significant and real, but 2) political reconciliation is progressing at a dangerously slow pace.

Nagl, a former Army lieutenant colonel who helped write the Army-Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Field Manual, described the significant security progress he witnessed in Baghdad:

The Dora market in Baghdad, once a war zone, is now a recovering war zone with a thriving gym decorated somewhat surreally with Arnold Schwarzenegger posters — Arnold from the old days, not from the new ones,” Nagl said. “The Rashid Bank was conducting transfer payments under the careful eye of a deputy manager — a female deputy manager, who was wearing gaudy costume jewelry earrings not an abaya. And one of the signs of security progress obviously is women able to dress in a Western style on the streets, which we saw in particular in Baghdad.”

He also stressed that Iraq army, police and Sunni militias — so-called “Sons of Iraq” — were contributing significantly to keeping the peace, but added that “the Iraqis are not yet ready to take over the security by themselves, and at least in private they’ll admit it.”

As for how long a United States presence in Iraq will be needed, at least in a support role, Nagl aligned himself with the views of an Iraqi officer, Lt. Col. Mohammad Najim Khairi, who told the New York Times last week: “We are too many years behind other countries. We need the coalition forces until 2015.”

“I think that’s about right,” Nagl assessed.

As for the prospects of political reconciliation, Nagl seemed generally more optimistic given current U.S. policy than Brimley or Kahl.

Kahl, who is one of Barack Obama’s Iraq advisers, put the blame for the slow pace of political reconciliation on Prime Minster Nouri al-Maliki, as well as on American strategy, which he believes is not properly aimed at using U.S. leverage to push Iraq’s leaders toward political accommodation.

For example, Maliki has been “slow-rolling” the integration of the Sunni Sons of Iraq into the Iraqi army and police, according to Kahl. Kahl offered some startling statistics about the lack of progress on this front: Of the more than 100,000 Sunni militiamen that were much of the reason for American success over the last year in combating Al-Qaeda in Iraq, 16,000 are “in the pipeline” for integration into the Iraqi Army and police. Of these 16,000, the Iraqi government has only approved 600.

Why? According to Kahl, Maliki, overconfident in the capabilities of the Shiite-dominated Iraqi army, believes he would be would be victorious in an inter-sectarian civil war, if it comes to that, and thus has no real interest in integrating these Sunnis into the Iraqi army and police forces.

“Maliki has no interest in integrating these guys — none,” Kahl said. “He thinks they’re thugs; he thinks they’re hooligans. . . . In fact, there’s some evidence that he’s trying to pick fights with them, hoping that they will start a fight that he can then turn around and finish them.”

Nagl was not so certain that the slow process of “Sons of Iraq” integration is a result of a deliberate stalling on the part of Maliki’s government. He contended that, in addition to sectarianism, bureaucratic inefficiency is likely also to blame for a significant portion of these delays. He also noted that U.S. military officials have collected biometric identification data and other information on most of the Sons of Iraq, which would make them easier to identify and dissuade or arrest were they to contemplate reverting to violence in response to perceived Shiite stalling.

So what can be done to hasten progress toward political reconciliation and thereby cement recent security gains?

First, the three analysts seemed to agree that the political process in Iraq, beginning with provincial elections in late 2008 or early 2009, must go forward. The Iraqi parliament adjourned last month without passing an election law. The election law vote was stalled due to a fight over the division of power in Kirkuk. Nagl holds out hope that a special session by the Iraq parliament could allow the provincial elections to take place this year, but Kahl asserted that even with the passage of such a law today, preparation time by the U.N. and other monitors would push the elections into at least the beginning of 2009. It’s important that the elections not only take place, but are deemed as legitimate, Kahl said.

The provincial elections are “incredibly important to rebalance the distribution of power” in Iraq, said Nagl. The current situation in which Sunnis and certain Shiite factions are underrepresented in Iraq’s government was created when those factions boycotted the original Iraqi legislative elections in 2005.

Iraqi presidential elections at the end of 2009 will also be important, especially as a check on Maliki’s unwillingness to reach political accommodation with Sunnis and certain Shiite factions, they said.

To illustrate the likely consequences of continuing delays in the parliamentary elections, Brimley related a conversation that he had with a former Sunni insurgent who is now working with U.S. forces in southern Iraq. When asked about the provincial elections, the Iraqi man said he had formed his own political party and was organizing ahead of the elections.

“And I said, well, sir, what happens if there’s no provincial elections?” Brimley related. “He looked at me and he kind of shrugged and he said, ‘There will be trouble.’ . . . I think that speaks to the problem of the SOI and the election.”

In addition to Iraqi elections, there seemed to be a consensus among the three CNAS experts that the United States could do much more to push Maliki toward political reconciliation. Kahl was the most critical of the administration on this score, and singled out what he called Bush’s weekly “atta boy” calls with Maliki for being particularly unhelpful and tying U.S. success in Iraq to one particular leader. The Bush administration’s failure to wisely use its leverage to push for political reconciliation was illustrated in its approach toward negotiations over a Status of Forces Agreement with Iraq, Kahl said.

“Interestingly enough, we started this open negotiation from the exact wrong point. We started this open negotiation saying, we don’t want a timeline, we want to be here for as long as we can,” Kahl said.

“So we sent the signal to them that our No. 1 priority in this open negotiation was to stay in Iraq forever,” Kahl said. “So we ended up going into these negotiations perversely begging them to let us stay, instead of having them convince us we shouldn’t leave. And so all of these residual elements of support that we really should have been leveraging only came at the very end when we finally figured this out.”

The “residual elements of support” that the Iraqis want from the United States, and which Kahl and Brimley argued are the basis of American leverage against Maliki’s intransigence, were spelled out in a Declaration of Principles that the Bush administration and Maliki’s government signed in November 2007, at the outset of negotiations over the Status of Forces Agreement.

That document spells out 17 separate points of “cooperation in the political, economic, cultural, and security fields.”

These are all things that they want from us and, to be candid, they need from us,” Kahl said. “These are all points of leverage and the problem that I have is that the Bush administration has sent them the signal that, in essence, Iraq is more important to us than it is to them — or than we are to them.”

Although the three CNAS experts differed on various matters, in general all three seemed to be proposing a middle way for U.S. Iraq policy, what CNAS called “conditional engagment” in a June report on the conflict. They stressed that this middle way falls between the two poles of the U.S. policy debate. Such “conditional engagement” takes account of the dramatic security gains that have been accomplished there, and also recognizes that a failure to consolidate those gains would represent a calamity for Iraq and therefore for U.S. interests in the region. In addition, however, it assumes that political reconciliation will not occur if the United States forfeits its leverage vis-a-vis the Shiite-dominated government through an unconditional pledge to remain in the country indefinitely.

“Iraq in my mind has become fodder for politicians on both sides of the aisle,” Brimley said. “This is not abnormal. I think for many Democrats the reduced violence is a reason for U.S. troops to leave and quickly; for many Republicans, lower violence is proof that the Bush administration and John McCain were right all along to advocate for the surge and right to advocate for a long-term military presence in Iraq.

“Not surprisingly, from my perspective, both these positions are fundamentally wrong and in some ways do more harm than good in the debate over a way forward and out of Iraq.”

In recent weeks, in the United States, a debate about what Iraqis themselves want has served as a kind of proxy for this larger debate, with “anti-war” partisans seizing on Maliki’s statements about a U.S. withdrawal as evidence that the U.S. should get out of Iraq completely, within months, and the other side arguing that Maliki’s statement were meant purely for domestic consumption. Kahl summarized this debate thusly:

I think that we are . . . taking the statements of Iraqi leaders about our withdrawal both too seriously and not seriously enough. That is, there are some who take the statements by Maliki’s spokesman . . . and others . . . to conclude the Iraqis want us out by the end of 2010, down to zero, full stop. And there are others that say that everything that Maliki is talking about is pure domestic politics and has nothing to do with his true beliefs. Those — both positions are simply wrong and anybody who tells you otherwise has not been to Iraq.

The Iraqis want us to leave. They want us to reduce our presence in their cities, but they do not want us to leave altogether, at least not for a while. They don’t want a permanent presence. They don’t want a Korea-style presence of 20 or 30 or 40 or 50,000 forces for 50 years or 100 years, but they do want some residual support for some time to come. The good news is, I’m happy they want those things. I just don’t think they should come for free.

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