Last month I returned from my second trip to Iraq this year. Like many observers, I was struck by the changes since the spring. Baghdad neighborhoods that were no-go zones in March are coming back to life. Parts of Diyala province that were too dangerous to visit then are now secure. Patrols in Fallujah that would have been ambushed a year ago are met by kids mugging for photos from Marines who carry lollipops along with their rifles. Iraq is still a war zone, but the trends are turning positive.
What does this mean? Is it an illusion born of an unsustainable spike in U.S. troop levels? Is it a window of opportunity that Iraqi dithering will soon waste? Or is it a fundamental change that can allow us to start bringing our troops home?
The reduction in violence may prove to be fundamental — a new phase in the war with a better chance for stability than we have seen in many years. But it may not offer much chance for deep or rapid U.S. troop drawdowns. If we are not prepared to stay in large numbers for a long time, the gains of recent months could easily be reversed.
The Iraq conflict is a communal civil war. Classically, ending a civil war has two chief requirements: First, a cease-fire must be negotiated. This cease-fire must then be enforced by outside peacekeepers. The whole reason for civil warfare is that the locals do not trust each other.
Since last winter, a combination of good fortune, enemy mistakes and a new U.S. strategy with more troops and a mission of direct population security has created a largely unanticipated situation. Across much of Iraq, former combatants have chosen to stand down. Many of these fighters have switched sides, agreeing not only to stop firing on U.S. or Iraqi government troops but also to turn their arms against common enemies such as al-Qaeda in Iraq and, increasingly, rogue elements of Shiite militias such as Moqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army. These voluntary cease-fires have led to many locals joining “Concerned Local Citizens” organizations (CLCs) with U.S.-paid salaries, uniforms and recognition as local security providers; in exchange, they provide biometric data to facilitate vetting and enforcement of the terms of their agreements. There are now more than 60,000 CLC members, up from essentially none last winter.
Important hurdles remain in extending this system of cease-fires to the holdouts, especially in the northern and southern provinces. But it is increasingly plausible that we might achieve something like a nationwide cease-fire via local negotiated settlements.
Civil war cease-fires, however, are rarely self-enforcing. Much has been made of the danger that CLC deals could collapse: Many are the same fighters who had been killing U.S. and Iraqi troops; they retain their arms and sometimes even their leaders; some hope to seize power later if they can. It is true that we have not destroyed the enemy or driven him out of Iraq.
An outside peacekeeping role is thus critical to success, by punishing violators and building confidence that others can safely stand down. The troop counts normally sought for peacekeeping are not much lower than those for counterinsurgency war fighting, at least in the early years, and a meaningful outside presence can be needed for a generation. Many hope that the Iraqi cease-fires can be enforced via positive inducements such as government salaries for CLCs. But the record of such deals elsewhere suggests that more may be needed — for years to come.
For now, the only plausible candidate for this peacekeeping role is the United States. No one else can be expected to step in until and unless the war is clearly over. Yet pressure for a deep drawdown in U.S. forces is growing. War opponents would cut our losses; many war supporters hope the declining violence translates into safe U.S. troop reductions. Some reduction is unavoidable: We cannot maintain today’s operating tempo without breaking the military. But if we are to maintain the gains of the past year, we must retain enough troops to enforce a system of local cease-fires as peacekeepers.
A U.S. commitment to police an Iraqi cease-fire is no guarantee of success. A cease-fire might collapse even if we did keep a large peacekeeping force, and the peacekeepers might ultimately be rejected as foreign occupiers. One could defend a choice to withdraw altogether given these uncertainties.
Sticking it out to stabilize Iraq and avert the potential consequences of failure, however, is more defensible now than it has been for a long time — but only if we are willing to do what it takes to maximize the odds that Iraq does not return to bloodshed and chaos. A withdrawal that is too fast or too deep could create a self-defeating prophecy. The past year’s decline in violence may yet signal a new phase in which the American presence shifts from war fighting to peacekeeping. But if we take it chiefly as an opportunity to come home, we could easily lose what has been gained.
This article appears in full on CFR.org by permission of its original publisher. It was originally available here.