Friday, August 22, 2008

The Future of Our Mission in Iraq

The U.S. and Iraq have come to terms on a security agreement that would permit the withdrawal of American combat forces by 2011, after the Bush administration dropped it's insistence on immunity for contractors from Iraqi law, and agreed to a timetable for withdrawal. While this is no doubt good news as far as our involvement in Iraq is concerned, one has to to troubled by the manner in which the Iraqi government arrived at such an agreement, especially when the agreement comes at a time when security forces have turned their attentions to Sunni Awakenings forces:

The Shiite-dominated government in Iraq is driving out many leaders of Sunni citizen patrols, the groups of former insurgents who joined the American payroll and have been a major pillar in the decline in violence around the nation.

In restive Diyala Province, United States and Iraqi military officials say there were orders to arrest hundreds of members of what is known as the Awakening movement as part of large security operations by the Iraqi military. At least five senior members have been arrested there in recent weeks, leaders of the groups say.

West of Baghdad, former insurgent leaders contend that the Iraqi military is going after 650 Awakening members, many of whom have fled the once-violent area they had kept safe. While the crackdown appears to be focused on a relatively small number of leaders whom the Iraqi government considers the most dangerous, there are influential voices to dismantle the American backed movement entirely.

“The state cannot accept the Awakening,” said Sheik Jalaladeen al-Sagheer, a leading Shiite member of Parliament. “Their days are numbered.”

It is the agreement of a majority of Sunni fighters to cease their attacks on the Iraqi government and American troops, and agree to enter the political process, that has produced the dramatic decline in violence in Iraq over the last year. However, the Shiite-dominated national government appears to be hardening its stance on their political participation, and it's beginning to appear that they will be unwilling to permit the Sunnis to participate in the political process to any meaningful extent. What does the mean for the future of our mission in Iraq?

Two and a half years ago, Stephen Biddle wrote an article in Foreign Affairs in which he argued that the United States must be willing to manipulate the balance of forces between the warring parties in Iraq, to ensure that none felt they had the advantage over the other. This advice presaged the surge, and Biddle has been supporter of the surge largely because it followed behind and was aimed at enforcing the development of the Awakenings movement. At the time that he wrote the article though, the Iraqi government was weak, their security forces were incapable of serious action, and they were seemingly besieged by Sunni insurgents and Al Qaeda even as Shiite militias roamed the streets of major cities hunting for Sunnis. The situation is far different now. A dramatic relocation of Sunnis from Shiite areas has occurred, the security forces of the Iraqi government are better trained and more powerful, and Al Qaeda has largely been beaten into submission. These developments, while positive in the near-term for Iraq, have emboldened the Shiite dominated government, which now appears to be interested only in securing their power against both Sunni and Shiite rivals and which does not appear to be interested in compromise to any meaningful extent. The balance of power that existed at the beginning of the Awakenings movement appears to have evaporated, at least in the mind of Shiite leaders like Nouri al-Maliki and Jalaladeen al-Sagheer. Surely they realize that if they block Sunni efforts to participate in the government, those Sunnis will eventually resume their fight against the government. They do not appear to care, as they also appear to believe that their forces are now more than capable of dealing with the Sunni.

What does this mean for our withdrawal? It's hard to say. I'm unsure if the Bush administration fully understands or accepts what appears to be happening in Iraq, or if they do understand and accept it and are willing to turn a blind eye to the government's moves against Awakenings fighters as long as it doesn't threaten the domestic political success that is the security agreement. But you have to wonder how long this can go on. While it's easy for the Bush administration and right-wing pundits to claim victory in Iraq while stories like the one above stay under the radar, how long would such proclamations last if the situation in Iraq gradually begins to resemble the one that predated the surge and the Awakenings movement? What sort of withdrawal can possibly occur if violence flares again? It seems clear to me that the Iraqi government is in fact more powerful than they were only two years ago, but it does not seem assured that they could largely defeat a Sunni insurgency without American support. I can only imagine that there would be immense pressure for our forces to stay, but would the government want us to stay? If open war breaks out again and the Shiite government faces stiffer fighting than they expected, would they ask us to stay? What would an Obama administration and/or a Democratic Congress have to say about that (I think we can safely assume McCain's answer.)

Quite frankly, I'm willing to leave Iraq even if violence flares. A two or three year lull in violence wouldn't change the fundamental situation as it existed in Iraq before the Awakenings movement and the surge, which is and has always been that the Shiite majority desire to rule Iraq and they have no interest in sharing power with the Sunnis who oppressed them for decades. And our window to influence the Shiites to share power by threatening the withdrawal of our military support has long passed; clearly, the Shiites now WANT us to leave, and it's beginning to appear that this is so they can resume their subjugation of the Sunnis. Some might go so far as to argue that our forces should further support a balancing of power in Iraq by then supporting the Sunnis against the Shiites to one extent or another. But cleary this implies a decades-long occupation of Iraq by our combat forces, because that is how long it would take to convince all the ethnic groups in Iraq that they should share power with each other, and such a goal is probably unattainable regardless.

Clearly, withdrawal should be in the future for our troops, in one fashion or another. But what will Iraq look like in another year or two? And what will we do about it?

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