It’s been five years since the U.S. toppled Saddam. What will Iraq’s next five be like?
LUIZA CH. SAVAGE
In Washington’s eyes, a lot of things have been going right in Iraq five years after George W. Bush first ordered troops to invade. In the one year since the U.S. military revamped its strategy and sent in 30,000 additional troops on top of the 130,000 already there, the violence has dropped significantly. Iraqi civilian deaths dropped from a peak of 3,000 per month in November 2006 to around 700 in December 2007, according to combined U.S. and Iraqi data. Explosions of roadside improvised explosive devices (IEDs) are down to one-third of their peak levels. Tribal leaders have joined neighbourhood patrols, and thanks to co-operation between Iraqis and U.S. forces, weapon caches are being discovered at two to three times the earlier pace. The terrorist group calling itself al-Qaeda in Iraq has been driven into ever-shrinking patches of territory. The Iraqi army is beginning to measure up, and the Iraqi parliament has passed a budget and several other laws.
On Monday, Vice-President Dick Cheney arrived in Baghdad and proclaimed that “phenomenal changes” and a “remarkable turnaround” have taken place since his last visit 10 months ago. “The-surge-has-worked” message has become an unofficial campaign slogan for Republican presidential candidate John McCain, who was in Iraq over the weekend. The success narrative is so strong in some quarters of Washington that when a congressional debate erupted last week over whether the U.S. should do more to help the country’s 4.2 million external and internal refugees, Dana Rohrabacher, a Republican from California, said that, given the improving security situation, “now is the time that we should be calling on the refugees to go home.”
They would if they could. But beneath the encouraging statistics, reality is more complicated. Part of the reason sectarian bloodshed is down is that ethnic cleansing has been so successful. Shia militias have driven Sunnis out of Baghdad in large numbers. “The violence is down because there are fewer people to kill,” says Nir Rosen, a fellow at the Center on Law and Security at New York University, and an Arabic-speaking writer and filmmaker who has spent much of the past five years documenting the war in Iraq. Another reason is that the U.S. is paying Sunni fighters to participate in so-called “awakening councils,” which patrol their neighbourhoods and have driven al-Qaeda out. Their commitment is now being tested by tensions with the Iraqi government over money and the Sunnis’ promised integration into national security forces.
And then there is the unpredictable factor of the powerful Shia militia leader Muqtada al-Sadr, who has imposed a temporary ceasefire against American and Iraqi troops while
he consolidates control of his Mahdi Army. All told, it’s a precarious foundation for peace in a country where sectarian hostilities remain strong. The top U.S. commander in Iraq, Gen. David Petraeus, whose testimony to Congress next month will be closely watched, told the Washington Post on March 13 that “no one” in the U.S. and Iraqi governments “feels that there has been sufficient progress by any means in the area of national reconciliation,” or in the provision of basic public services. The Pentagon has begun bringing home the additional surge troops, but now Petraeus wants a “freeze” in further reductions.
And although violence has declined, it still remains at 2005 levels, with 60 attacks a day. On the day that Cheney arrived, two U.S. soldiers died in a roadside IED attack, six children were killed when a mortar round hit their home, and 52 people died in a bombing near the Imam Hussein Mosque in the holy city of Karbala.
So, as the fifth anniversary of the invasion is marked on March 20, what do the next five years hold in store for Iraq? Some US$500 billion has been spent, nearly 4,000 Americans and tens of thousands of Iraqis have been killed, and the future of the country is only slightly more certain than when the war began. The United Nations mandate allowing a multinational security force in Iraq ends at the end of this year, and the Bush administration is negotiating a long-term agreement with the Iraqi government to authorize the continuing presence of U.S. troops. But the presidential campaign season will bring heated political debates over whether the U.S. military presence in Iraq must be maintained so the blood and treasure the American people have already paid will not be in vain, or whether it’s time for Washington to cut its losses.
McCain promises to stay the course in Iraq, calling any other move a “surrender.” Democratic rivals Barack Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton promise to begin drawing back combat troops, arguing that will force Iraqi politicians “to take responsibility” for their future. They both talk about the UN playing a bigger role in negotiating a political solution for the bitterly divided country. And yet even the Democratic candidates are leaving some wiggle room, suggesting that even the swiftest withdrawal from Iraq would not be swift, and certainly would not be complete.
Obama has said he will bring U.S. combat troops home within 16 months of taking office, at a rate of one to two brigades per month—but would leave enough troops to fight al-Qaeda. And before she quit the Obama campaign after making headlines by calling Clinton “a monster,” foreign policy adviser Samantha Power made clear that Obama would tailor his plans to needs on the ground,
telling the BBC bluntly, “He will, of course, not rely on some plan that he’s crafted as a presidential candidate or a U.S. senator.” Even if he did follow his plan to the letter, it still involves drawing down combat troops onlyleaving tens of thousands in training and support positions, as well as guarding the U.S. Embassy.
Clinton, meanwhile, has promised to begin to reduce troop levels within 60 days of taking office, at a pace of one to two brigades a month. In a foreign policy speech on Monday, she called the Iraq war “another country’s civil war, a war we cannot win.” Yet her advisers have also suggested she might alter her plans, depending on violence on the ground.
But regardless of who moves into the White House, the future of Iraq will ultimately be decided by Iraqis. In one scenario, no political resolution among the sectarian militias will be possible until a full-fledged civil war burns itself out and produces a winner. Under this view, the American presence, however
At some point American troop levels have to come down, but chaos doesn't have to follow
long, is at most delaying the inevitable. “I think the various ceasefires will hold for a couple more months at least, unless a major incident happens to provoke one side or another. When the surge ends, the militias in Baghdad will feel more free to operate,” predicts Rosen, outlining a dire scenario. “The violence will resume in a more expedited fashion. You’ll see actual attacks on neighbourhoods, more of a war like in Bosnia, and urban warfare in Baghdad.”
Civilians will be caught in the crossfire between militias, but they will have nowhere to run, he says, noting that 11 of the country’s regional governors have closed their borders to internal Iraqi refugees. Jordan and Syria have severely tightened restrictions on Iraqi refugees. Rosen argues that the most constructive thing the international community can do now is to prepare safe havens for the inevitable victims, or take them in as refugees and foreign students.
Rosen expects a civil war will involve not just Sunni fighting Shia, but in the south Shia militias fighting one another for dominance,
and in Anbar province Sunni militias battling one another. “There is no possibility of reconciliation, no possibility of negotiation, until there is more fighting. You’re going to see the various militias fight it out and someone will come out on top. Then they will be in a position to work things out. That is the bestcase scenario.”
Rosen says that the next five years will be like the last: “Militias fighting each other over influence and territory and Sunni recidivists fighting to regain territory they lost. What you won’t have is a strong sense of state in Iraq.” Rosen says he finds it hard to even imagine another prime minister after Nouri al-Maliki, or a functioning central government. “There won’t be an Iraq. A Somalia is quite likely,” he says, envisioning the country falling under fragmented warlord control. He adds: “I hope I’m wrong.”
The counterpoint to the Somalia scenario is the possibility of a Bosnia on the Euphrates—in which the sectarian conflicts are not extinguished but at least reined in by an inter-
nationally brokered truce among ethnically separated enclaves, supported for years by foreign troops. “I am encouraged by the trends. They are definitely very favourable on top of a set of underlying conditions that are very bad,” says Michael O’Hanlon, an Iraq analyst at the Brookings Institution who argues that Iraq should be looked at as a nation-building effort that should be expected to take five to 10 years.
O’Hanlon has been tracking Iraqi progress against 11 benchmarks, including establishing provincial election laws, reaching an oilrevenue sharing accord, enacting amnesty laws, passing annual federal budgets, hiring Sunni volunteers into the security forces, holding a fair referendum on the disputed northern oil city of Kirkuk, and purging extremists from government ministries and security forces. So far, he and collaborator Jason Campbell have given the Iraqis a score of five out of 11.
“If we stay, we have a chance of keeping this thing in check,” says O’Hanlon, a Democrat who worries that Clinton and Obama
underestimate the importance of keeping large numbers of U.S. troops in Iraq. “These kinds of missions tend to have a good chance of success once you get to a certain ratio of security forces.” Within 10 years, “we could withdraw and have a good chance of indigenous
politicians carrying on without us.”
O’Hanlon does not accept the argument that militias will battle it out to the end. “There is no rule of political science that tells you which way it has to be in Iraq,” he says. “I could not conclusively rebut someone that said the Sunni-Shia schism is so deep that in the end you will not get away from this structural conflict. I cannot prove them wrong. I just hope over time, because Iraq
has a history of Sunnis and Shiites working together, with our supervision we can restore some of that.”
He admits “that’s an article of faith.” But O’Hanlon points to the example of Bosnia, where there was no clear winner to the conflict. Instead, an outside force—NATO—told the ethnic factions that if they did not cease fighting, they would be bombed. Then the international community spent 10 years building a consensus that would allow people on the ground to live in peace—albeit with a certain degree of ethnic separation. “When these wars end, people don’t love each other right away,” O’Hanlon says. “They don’t have to. They have to decide they prefer not fighting to fighting. Reconciliation is probably not the right word. It’s about accommodation and compromise.” In any case, he argues it’s better than the alternative. “Even with chances of a mediocre outcome, I think it’s worth it compared to the near certainty of collapse and regional war if we leave,” he says.
Anthony Cordesman, a respected military analyst at the Center for Strategic & International Studies, who once worked for McCain, estimates there is still five years of work for U.S. forces in Iraq. He says it could take until 2012 to prepare Iraqi forces to independently manage internal Iraqi security, and until 2018 before Iraq’s army, navy and air force could defend against foreign threats, for example. And the rest of the to-do list is long, from resolving the sharing of oil profits to integrating militias into the security forces to revamping the police and the courts.
But Cordesman stresses that trying to predict Iraq’s future is folly. “There isn’t a most likely scenario,” he says. “You have a wide range of options but there isn’t enough evidence to make them useful.” At some point, American troop levels will have to come down—but that doesn’t necessarily mean chaos will follow. “You can’t sustain even 15 brigades indefinitely—but it’s not clear you have to,” Cordesman says. “You need partner units, embeds, and advisers, and be able to support Iraqi forces, air power, mobility, and give it a decisive edge over opponents. Since no one can predict the level of political accommodation or how successful we’ll be with the remnants of al-Qaeda, trying to predict numbers today is one more of these exercises that can reflect ideological conviction but is not meaningful.”
And, like others, Cordesman cautions that the candidates’ own promises are not reliable predictors of future actions. “I would just say that historically, U.S. campaigns have not been a particularly good indication of what happens when someone is elected,” he says. “We’ve had all kinds of statements by candidates. But presidents deal with reality.” M
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