Are Iraq’s Problems Now Primarily Economic?

It’s long been clear that Iraq is much more than a military problem. But with the progress on the political and security fronts of the past year or so, the biggest remaining obstacle to achieving lasting peace and stability in Iraq may now be economic.

Listening to a presentation by Gen. Ray Odierno this afternoon at the Mayflower Hotel in Washington, I was struck by how many of Iraq’s problems have an economic dimension.

For example, Odierno repeatedly stressed the need for regional engagement. As Michael Wahid Hanna points out in his WPR briefing published today, this idea has been around at least since the Iraq Study Group, which emphasized the importance of regional diplomacy to help Iraq achieve “security, political and economic milestones.” In his comments, however, Odierno very specifically emphasized the economically beneficial aspects of such engagement, portraying regional and global investment in the Iraqi economy over the next two years as key to Iraq’s future.

Similarly, when Odierno’s deputy Brig. Gen Steve Salazar, who is in charge of MNF-I’s efforts to train and advise Iraqi Security Forces, assessed the main hurdles to Iraq taking responsibility for its own security, he pointed squarely at an economic issue: the money available for the country’s military budget. Salazar said the ideal budget for the Iraqi military this year would have been $15 billion, but the Iraqi Security Forces were allocated only “$4.1 to $4.5 billion.”

Finally, when assessing the potential for renewed sectarian violence in Iraq, progress in integrating the former Sunni militias known as the “Sons of Iraq” is at the top of the list of important indicators. And the problem of the Sons of Iraq is nothing if not an economic problem. The loyalty of these former allies of al-Qaida in Iraq was originally flipped with what one might euphemistically call economic incentives, and the $300-a-month salaries their members have continued to receive from the United States, and now the Iraqi government is, by most accounts, what has kept some of the most hardcore of them from again picking up arms against the Shiite-dominated government.

Many analysts have questioned the commitment of the Maliki government to finding a place for the Sons of Iraq in Iraq’s security forces and government. Odierno wasn’t very forceful in making the case that such analyses are wrong, but he did point to evidence of the government’s commitment to the SOI integration program in Iraq’s most recent budget. He said the SOI funding line was the only one not cut in a recent Iraqi government budget that otherwise saw cuts across the board. He also pointed to a recent resolution of Iraq’s council of ministers that included language pledging to integrate 80 percent of the Sons of Iraq into non-security-related jobs, and 20 percent into the Iraqi Security Forces.

Regardless of fundamental political and sectarian aspects of the Sons of Iraq situation, it’s undeniably among the many Iraqi problems that could be so much more easily solved with a robust Iraqi economy. Money can’t buy happiness, but in Iraq it could no doubt make a significant down payment on peace.