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Unfinished Business: An American Strategy for Iraq Moving Forward

Unfinished Business: An American Strategy for Iraq Moving Forward

by Kenneth M. Pollack, Raad Alkadiri, J. Scott Carpenter, Frederick W. Kagan, Sean Kane

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Iraq still hangs in the balance. The dramatic improvements in Iraqi security between 2007 and 2009 have produced important, but incomplete changes in the nation's politics. These changes make it possible to imagine Iraq slowly muddling upward, building gradually toward a better future. But we must be constantly on guard against the considerable potential for Iraq


Iraq still hangs in the balance. The dramatic improvements in Iraqi security between 2007 and 2009 have produced important, but incomplete changes in the nation's politics. These changes make it possible to imagine Iraq slowly muddling upward, building gradually toward a better future. But we must be constantly on guard against the considerable potential for Iraq to slip into all-out civil war. There are dozens of scenarios—from military coups, to official misconduct, to the assassination of one or two key leaders— that could spark such violence.

In Unfinished Business, a team of five experts from across the political spectrum analyze the situation in Iraq. They present a well-reasoned and feasible path for U.S. policy toward Baghdad—one that would give priority to preventing Iraq from slipping into civil war or becoming an aggressive state but that would also lead to a clear American goal: a new, strong, and prosperous ally in the Middle East.

Ultimately, the United States must condition the continuation of the U.S.-Iraqi relationship on the willingness of Iraqi political leaders to guide their country in the direction of greater stability, inclusivity, and effective governance.

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Brookings Institution Press
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New Edition
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5.80(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.60(d)

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Unfinished Business

An American Strategy for Iraq Moving Forward
By Kenneth M. Pollack Raad Alkadiri J. Scott Carpenter Frederick W. Kagan Sean Kane


All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8157-2165-9

Chapter One

Goals and Influence

America is not finished in Iraq. Not in any sense of the word. American interests in Iraq have not yet been secured, and so the United States will probably remain deeply engaged in Iraq for years to come. America's influence there may have abated, but it is far from spent. Indeed, the United States remains one of the most influential actors in Iraq, although that influence will only remain if Washington learns to wield it more skillfully.

President Obama warned "that we have not seen the end of American sacrifice in Iraq" and stressed that he wants to bring the Iraq war to a "responsible end." The hard, incongruous truth is that a responsible American exit from Iraq has to be everything the hasty and ill-planned 2003 U.S. invasion was not. The United States may have stepped back from combat operations, but it has yet to fully define a strategy for achieving a long-term partnership with Iraq that can serve core American interests and help Iraq's fledgling democracy avoid a slide back to civil war. Under certain circumstances and with Iraqi concurrence, this would require extensive American engagement with Iraq for many years. Under other circumstances, America should be prepared to simply walk away if Iraqi leaders take steps directly inimical to U.S. interests and their own country's stability.

Meanwhile, the United States remains a key enabler of the Iraqi government and military, and there are a wide range of technical, economic, diplomatic, and security benefits that Iraq desires in a long-term partnership with the world's sole superpower. Moreover, the situation in Iraq no longer resonates as broadly in U.S. domestic politics as it once did, giving this and future administrations greater room to exercise conditionality in the U.S.-Iraqi relationship. What is now required is a carefully considered and pragmatic plan to wield these sources of influence in pursuit of a ruthlessly prioritized set of fundamental goals. This is the essence of partnership—it must serve the interests of both sides.

The Uncertain Future of Iraq

After American missteps in 2003–2006 pushed Iraq into a sectarian war that threatened to consume the country altogether, the array of changes often referred to by the shorthand of the "surge" stabilized the country and pulled Iraq back from the brink of the abyss. Further refinements to American strategy and tactics, the maturation of Iraq's security forces, and the emergence of an Iraqi leadership willing to take bold action on security matters then enabled U.S. and Iraqi forces to fill the security vacuum that had given rise to the internecine conflict in the first place, break the stranglehold of the militias, and bring real security to most of the country.

The dramatic improvements in Iraqi security between 2007 and 2009 have produced important, but incomplete changes in Iraq's politics. Democracy, in its most rudimentary form, has broken out. Iraqi leaders must wheel and deal for votes—from voters, from parliamentarians, and even from cabinet members within the government itself. It is a frustrating experience for former warlords, revolutionaries, tribal shaykhs, and clergymen, but they are learning. In addition to the new incentive structure that democracy has introduced to Iraqi politics, Baghdad has also seen the reemergence of Iraq's more traditional and less enlightened forms of politics. Ethnic, religious, and tribal differences compete with democratic pressures. Personal charisma and personal animosities remain critical factors in the political direction of the country, and fear, conspiracies, and extra-constitutional practices remain all too common.

Unfortunately, while the security situation has improved, the United States has missed important opportunities to consolidate and accelerate Iraq's political evolution. The surge was meant in part to create a breathing space for Iraqi factions to address the most pressing disputes that continue to be a source of lasting tension and that threaten stability in the longer term. It was also meant to change the incentives of Iraq's leaders, by depriving them of violence as a tool and giving the Iraqi people the standing to demand positive changes without fear. In part because the United States has not held Iraq's leaders' feet to the fire and in part because the United States at times pushed for the wrong things, many have been able to consolidate their own narrow hold on power, evading key political reforms and retarding the democratic transformation.

Today, the United States has less leverage to push for reform because Washington has put security priorities above political change and provided Iraqi leaders with an excuse to consolidate the status quo. In doing so, the United States has also allowed Iran to regain considerable influence in Iraq after the surge had temporarily marginalized Tehran's influence. As a result, Iran continues to play a sharply destabilizing role in Iraq by supporting a host of violent groups across the political spectrum and ruthlessly promoting its own interests in Baghdad by making sectarianism—and Shi'i ascendancy—the framework for a new government. Tehran therefore threatens to erase the progress witnessed over the past two years. In particular, the most electorally successful parties and factions (outside the Kurdistan region) had begun a shift from sectarian agendas toward a center-ground of Iraqi nationalism in response to the popular demands unleashed by improved security. Today, those same parties are lurching back toward sectarianism under Iranian escort. Meanwhile, Iraqi popular demands for less divisive politics and more representative and effective government are being ignored.

And so, Iraq's future still hangs in the balance. The improvements in security and the new, democratic elements that have entered Iraqi politics make it possible to imagine Iraq slowly muddling upward, building gradually toward a better future. Iraq could someday emerge as a stable, prosperous, and even pluralistic society, one unlike any the Arab world has seen before. But, Iraq is not there yet, and it will take years, perhaps even decades, to realize that vision, even if the essential foundations are all there.

But Iraq could very easily slip down much worse paths. The Iraqis need to establish a government that can actually govern and that enjoys broad legitimacy among the country's different constituencies. Iraq remains a deeply dysfunctional society: its infrastructure, education, health, economy, sanitation and water networks, agriculture, and legal and industrial systems desperately need repair, redefinition, and institutional guidance. Similarly, a plethora of critical outstanding differences remain and could produce new rounds of violence. The hydrocarbon law, the status of Kirkuk and other disputed territories, as well as the relationship among the central government, the provinces, and the Kurdistan Regional Government are only the best known. All of these problems desperately need to be addressed, but are complex, long-term challenges that will require a mixture of patience, skill, luck, and outside support. Ultimately, they can only be addressed by a new Iraqi government, one with the political strength to strike compromises, build institutions, let contracts, hire and fire personnel, and make laws that previous governments have lacked. Without such a government, and without at least a roadmap for progress on key political disputes, at best Iraq will stagger along as the sick man of the Gulf, bullied by its neighbors, unable to defend itself (militarily, economically, or diplomatically), and used as a constant battleground for its neighbors' proxies—effectively a larger version of Lebanon today. At worst, the failings of the government will allow and enable militias to reemerge, lay claim to territory and population, and wage civil war—like Lebanon at its worst in the 1980s or Bosnia in the 1990s.

Americans, policymakers and citizens alike, must realize the omnipresent potential for Iraq to slip into all-out civil war. There are dozens of scenarios—from military coups, to official misconduct, to the assassination of one or two key leaders—that could spark all-out violence. The conflict might look somewhat different than before, perhaps featuring Arab-Kurd conflict, greater intra-Shi'ah fighting, or various parts of the Iraqi security forces warring for control of the state. But it does not require much imagination to see how it could happen all over again.

Many Americans seem to believe that the changes wrought by the transformation of 2007–2009 are permanent and make it impossible for Iraq to return to internecine warfare, and therefore even a clumsy, hasty American withdrawal from the country would not be disastrous. Iraq might be left a weak, ugly place, they reason, but there are many weak, ugly countries in the world and a weak, ugly Iraq would not be a threat to American interests. This is a dangerously misguided notion. Iraq absolutely can slide into the kind of all-out civil war that would jeopardize American interests by threatening all of the other countries of the Persian Gulf region.

Indeed, if Iraq does not find a way to muddle slowly upward toward greater stability, prosperity, and pluralism, it is far more likely that it will slide quickly backward into the chaos of all-out civil war than that it would simply muddle downward toward an unpleasant, weak, but minimally stable state that need not concern the United States. Again, the dynamics and form of a renewed internal war might differ from the spiral of sectarian violence of the first round, and it might take some time for the positive developments in Iraq to unravel, but within months or just a few years, Iraq would likely find itself plummeting back into the maelstrom and pulling America's vital interests down with it.

The Need for a New American Strategy for Iraq

Washington has amply signaled its intention to withdraw U.S. military forces from the country, sooner rather than later&mdas;perhaps as early as December 31, 2011, the date set by the 2008 U.S.-Iraq Security Agreement (SA) for the complete withdrawal of all American troops (unless a new agreement is signed extending that deadline). What is not clear, however, is what the United States hopes to accomplish before its troops depart and its other resources attenuate, or how it plans to reach its goals. Washington has announced a strategy to exit, but it has not yet formulated an exit strategy that will secure and sustain its interests in Iraq and the region.

Although U.S. influence in Iraq remains substantial, it is less than what it has been in the past. It is diminishing as American troops leave Iraq, as American resources are diverted elsewhere, and as the Iraqis themselves regain the ability to secure their country and govern themselves. This makes it all the more imperative that the United States have a clear strategic concept that establishes clear goals and well-defined objectives that can be achieved with this reduced panoply of tools. An American strategy for exiting Iraq must also include a ruthless prioritization among those goals and objectives to ensure that the United States directs its residual influence toward securing first what is absolutely vital, and only then whatever else is possible. America needs to learn to pick and choose where it tries to exert influence, lest by trying to do too much it squanders what influence it has.

It is important also to recognize that other actors are still taking their cues from the way the United States operates in Iraq, not least many of the Iraqis themselves. If the Iraqis, the Iranians, the United Nations, and others see the United States headed for the exit with no discernible goal other than to leave behind a flimsy political structure as a façade, they will act accordingly. America's allies will make no effort to exert themselves in the event of a disorganized exit, and America's enemies will seek to capitalize on the fear such an exit will create. Specifically, the militias, the terrorists, and Iraqi citizens alike will all make decisions under the assumption that America's precipitate exit could lead rapidly to civil war. In that case, as has been the case in Iraq and countless other intercommunal civil wars over time, average Iraqis and their leaders will take actions to hedge their bets and save themselves, which will make that civil war inevitable. Thus, if Washington fails to develop a strategy to secure and sustain its interests in Iraq, it is likely to create the worst-case scenarios it should be seeking to prevent.

Given these constraints, it is essential that Iraqis see themselves as benefiting from continued American involvement in Iraq. The United States must be constantly on guard not to enflame Iraqi nationalism by acting in an overbearing fashion. American personnel cannot behave like the viceroys of Iraq and demand that Iraqis simply obey their orders. Iraqis bristle at outsiders meddling in their affairs, with a shorter fuse when it comes to the country which only recently held the legal status of an occupying power in their homeland. Americans now have to negotiate, cajole, wheedle, bargain, threaten (subtly), and use all of the other arts of persuasion. And the more the Iraqis believe that the relationship with the United States is of value to them, the more desirous they will be of preserving ties to the United States, and the more willing to overlook American interference or see it as positive, and the more afraid they will be of losing those ties.

American Goals for Iraq Moving Forward

It is critical to start by outlining American enduring interests in Iraq as a foundation upon which to build a framework for U.S. policy toward Iraq moving forward. It is impossible to develop a workable strategy without first defining clear goals. The Obama administration's decision to withdraw U.S. forces relatively quickly has changed American interests in Iraq in several important ways from those that prevailed as a result of the Bush administration's desire to try to stay for a longer period and draw down more slowly. Washington needs to explicitly acknowledge those shifts and then develop concrete plans accordingly.

Currently, the United States can reasonably claim to have several different goals as it exits Iraq. But these goals, and the objectives they imply, are not all of equal importance, and Washington must set clear priorities among them. Simply put, it may not be possible for the United States to achieve all of its goals and attain all of its objectives given the new situation and the reduced resources now available. Therefore, it is critical to understand what is of greatest importance and what is of lesser consequence when apportioning energy, attention, and remaining resources. Only by setting such priorities can the United States apportion its effort in what will inevitably be a complex and difficult disengagement process that aims to help Iraq keep moving forward.

The following should be the order of U.S. priorities in Iraq.

Iraq Cannot Be Allowed to Descend into Civil War

Iraq is an extremely important nation in one of the most economically vital and geo-strategically sensitive regions of the world. If it were to be consumed by a new civil war, this alone would have important consequences. However, the history of intercommunal wars like that which Iraq began to experience in 2005–2006 demonstrates that there is an inevitable tendency for such conflicts to spill over into neighboring states. At its worst, such spillover can cause civil wars in the neighboring states and/or trigger regional conflicts among the neighbors as they seek to protect their interests, secure resources in the carcass of the state in civil war, and prevent their rivals from doing the same.

Consequently, the absolute minimum that the United States must seek to achieve in Iraq is to prevent the outbreak of a new civil war. Unfortunately, this is no easy feat. Although it is clearly the case that the vast majority of the Iraqi people do not want to return to violence, comprehensive scholarship on the causes and drivers of civil war has demonstrated that popular opinion is largely irrelevant. What causes civil wars to occur and recur is the breakdown of the state's capacity to govern and secure its society, coupled with elites who believe that their goals are best served by resorting to violence. In Iraq today, the state's capacity to control Iraqi society has greatly improved since the summer of 2003—or even the dark days of 2006—but it remains fragile and uncertain. It is clear that a number of important Iraqi political leaders only agreed to stop using violence in favor of the political process because the events of 2007–2009 demonstrated that continuing to pursue a violent course of action would lead to their defeat at the hands of American military forces and American-backed Iraqi military forces. As in countless other intercommunal civil conflicts, there is every reason to fear that if those leaders feel that their aspirations are not being fulfilled through the political process and changed circumstances make them believe that a return to violence would pay greater dividends, they would take up arms again, regardless of what "the people" wanted.


Excerpted from Unfinished Business by Kenneth M. Pollack Raad Alkadiri J. Scott Carpenter Frederick W. Kagan Sean Kane Copyright © 2011 by THE BROOKINGS INSTITUTION. Excerpted by permission of BROOKINGS INSTITUTION PRESS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

Kenneth M. Pollack is director of the Saban Center for Middle East Policy and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. He is the author of A Path out of the Desert: A Grand Strategy for America in the Middle East (Random House). Raad Alkadiri is partner and head of Global Risk at PFC Energy, a Washington, D.C.-based strategic advisory firm. J. Scott Carpenter is the Keston Family Fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and director of its Project Fikra. Frederick W. Kagan is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and author of Finding the Target: The Transformation of American Military Policy (Encounter). Sean Kane is the senior program officer for Iraq at the United States Institute of Peace and previously served with the UN Assistance Mission for Iraq.

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