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Iraq and Afghanistan: Tough Balancing Act for Obama

Interviewee: Stephen D. Biddle, Senior Fellow for Defense Policy, Council on Foreign Relations
Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor, CFR.org
March 2, 2009

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Stephen Biddle, a senior defense and counterterrorism analyst, says that President Obama's schedule for reducing and then ending the U.S. deployment in Iraq "is a reasonable compromise between several conflicting demands." Biddle argues that to keep the peace in these difficult political times in Iraq, more and not less U.S. forces are needed. Even though it is important to boost the force level in Afghanistan, he believes it is not so crucial to do it now.

President Obama gave his speech on how the United States is going to handle the troop withdrawal from Iraq on Friday. He announced the withdrawal of most troops by the end of August 2010, with thirty-five to fifty thousand remaining until the end of 2011, when all the troops are required to be out under the terms of the Status of Forces Agreement [SOF agreement] reached by the Bush administration. What did you make of the speech? Do you think the terms he outlined are good for everyone?

The speech is a reasonable compromise between several conflicting demands. But it is not the only reasonable compromise. I personally would have preferred one with a slower drawdown than that. But, as I said, it is a reasonable choice. You would like to have a large force in Iraq for peacekeeping purposes, and a sizeable reinforcement for Afghanistan to avoid destabilization of that theater.

But to get reinforcement in Afghanistan, don't you have to pull them out of Iraq?

Yes, if you want troops for Afghanistan, you can only get them from Iraq. In that trade-off you have to make some kind of balance. You also have a series of constraints you are working under, like the SOF agreement's 2011 deadline, and the president's campaign pledge to have the major combat formations out in sixteen months. The nineteen-month withdrawal for combat brigades with the 35,000-to-50,000 residual through 2011 is a way of trying to cast a reasonable balance among these various competing demands. At the same time, it is important in assessing that balance to be very careful about what we think we need troops for in Iraq. It is important to understand this ongoing military need for peacekeeping in the context of the early stages of a negotiated settlement to a sectarian civil war.

I personally would have preferred one with a slower drawdown than that. But, as I said, it is a reasonable choice.

The primary military purpose of the United States presence in Iraq right now is not training and advising. And it is not primarily counterterrorism. It is primarily peacekeeping to stabilize the system of negotiated peace that the United States played a major role in achieving. Generally speaking, peacekeeping is labor intensive, but it's not as if there is a set number required. Generally speaking, more is better, less is worse. The smaller the peacekeeping troop count, the lower the probability of success. But it never goes to zero. And again you have the competing requirement for troops in Afghanistan. The president is trying to draw a balance in which you accept some reduction of the probability of success in the peacekeeping effort in Iraq in exchange for increasing the probability of success in Afghanistan if there were no additional troops there.

As I understand it, the U.S. high command in Iraq wanted to keep as many troops there until after the Iraqi general elections at the end of this year. So I guess the command succeeded in that.

What they are doing is back-loading the withdrawal process. The president is saying all the combat brigades will be out in nineteen months. That doesn't tell you if they all leave in month nineteen, or if they leave one brigade every other month. That strikes me as a reasonable way of dealing with the threshold of the general elections. The threat in Iraqi elections is less that there will be bombs at voting stations upsetting the elections; that is a possibility but it never happens in the elections in Iraq. The problem in Iraq is whether the losers accept their defeat, and whether they resort to violence in the aftermath. And that can take a while to happen. For instance, we don't know yet if the losers in the provincial elections in January accept their defeat or not. Again, for my own part, I tend to think slower is better when it comes to withdrawing from Iraq. And one of the reasons is because the impact of the electoral defeat of a party tends to unfold over a period of time.

Last June when we had an interview you were concerned about the political weakness of the Nouri al-Maliki government and you were afraid that the Iraqi military might try a coup, a la Saddam Hussein, to seize power. But Maliki's power has increased since then, hasn't it?

Yes it has. The primary threat of military takeover at the moment is less that the military will overthrow the government and more that Maliki will use the military to overthrow his political opposition. One of the big problems in Iraq right now is that the cease-fire system is very decentralized. There are over two hundred separate Sunni Sons of Iraq [SOI] groups that are cease-fire participants. The way that Iraq moved from mass violence in 2007 was largely that prior combatants made a la carte bilateral cease-fire deals mostly with the U.S. military. These were implemented in a series of separate agreements.

This has created a huge opportunity for one player to use salami tactics to knock them off. For instance, Maliki could try to knock off the SOI groups one by one instead of turning on them all at once, in the hopes that he can piecemeal destroy them.

The situations in Mosul and Kirkuk are still the most volatile, I suppose.

Yes, that's right.

Are U.S. forces important there?

Yes, they are, for different reasons. In Mosul, they are involved in active offensive operations. It is the only part of the country where there is a war still being fought. So our assistance there is important.

In Kirkuk [an oil-rich area in which Kurds and Arabs both seek dominance], we are trusted by the Iraqi government and by the Kurds. The Kurds don't trust the government; the government doesn't trust the Kurds. Both trust us. That enables us to act as an honest broker in trying to resolve this potentially dangerous situation.

Is a deal possible?

It is possible. It won't be easy. And again, the more of a presence we have, the better the odds. I do think it is possible, but it is not a guarantee and it is not easy. It could fail, if we are not careful.

Let's talk about Afghanistan. The president earlier said he was sending seventeen thousand additional troops to Afghanistan. That was somewhat less than the thirty thousand troops the military had asked for. Is that because that's all he thinks is needed? Or is that the initial stage?

That's just the initial stage. There are three reviews of U.S. strategy ongoing right now, each of which will speak in some way to what we should do in Afghanistan. The seventeen thousand troop decision was taken before any of those reviews is complete. So that is by no means what we are going to do in Afghanistan. This is an attempt to staunch the bleeding in the meantime, to avoid a decline in the situation while decisions are being made.

The president is trying to draw a balance in which you accept some reduction of the probability of success in the peacekeeping effort in Iraq in exchange for increasing the probability of success in Afghanistan if there were no additional troops there.

What are you hoping comes from this review?

My own view on the situation is that a successful outcome there is going to require a major U.S. reinforcement. The issue isn't will it or won't it. It is how quickly it will happen. That is the biggest problem today. The debate tends to be whether we do or don't need troops in Afghanistan. That doesn't mean we need them right now. What are the consequences of delay? Delay is bad, but how bad? A fast redeployment in Afghanistan hurts us in Iraq. It comes at a price. My own view is that the downside risk of a slower reinforcement in Afghanistan is smaller than many people think. And the risk in faster withdrawal from Iraq is greater than most people think.

For example, when I was in Afghanistan in November, one of the questions I asked of everyone was, "If you don't get reinforced, what will be the result? Will it be defeat?" I couldn't get anyone in the theater to say defeat would ensue. The universal view was if they are not reinforced as they want, the result will be stalemate and an unnecessarily delayed and unnecessarily costly success.

I couldn't find anyone who thought the result will be defeat. The trouble is that the reinforcements come at the cost of the risk of failure in another theater. That's the reason why I think eventually reinforcements in arguably much larger numbers than people are now talking about will be necessary if we are going to succeed in Afghanistan. I would prefer that the buildup be slower than faster, because I think they are needed longer rather than less long in Iraq in the meantime.

We now have about 140,000 troops in Iraq. Most will be there until next year at the earliest. Right?

Yes. But the right way to think about troop demands in Iraq is that you would ideally like to have, for the best chances of stability in the peacekeeping role, a long, slow drawdown.

But aren't you stuck with the 2011 deadline? If you had your druthers, what would be your time frame, 2012, 2013?

I like to draw an analogy with the Balkans. In both Bosnia and in Kosovo, we started with large peacekeeping forces. Within four years, we had reduced the troop levels in half, without a resumption of violence. Now they are down to a tiny fraction of what they were. It strikes me that in an ideal world that is about the right pace. In Iraq, that would be a drawdown to 50 percent by 2011. That is a much slower drawdown than is now being contemplated. The SOF says all Americans have to be out by the end of 2011. Not half. The ideal world by my light would require a smaller drawdown than we have agreed to.

If I can get you to make a conclusion about the president's announcement, does he leave the situation riskier than it should be?

My own sense is that he is taking more risk on the margin in Iraq than I would. I don't want to come off as sniping at the president. He is stuck with a difficult choice. There are serious downside costs of not reinforcing Afghanistan, which I don't want to minimize. A longer war with a higher death count is not a trivial consideration. That's what you get if you reinforce too slowly in Afghanistan. But at the same time, if you withdraw too quickly from Iraq to allow a quicker buildup in Afghanistan, you run the risk that Iraq returns to civil warfare. You are stuck with a dilemma in which there is no risk-free choice. You have to achieve some kind of balance. Obama is doing it somewhat differently than I would. I do not mean this to be a full-throated attack on the president's choice. There are a span of reasonable choices. I would have made one a little slower than he did. But his choice strikes me as reasonable as well.

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