Iraq Outlook Improves But Sustained U.S. Military Presence Remains Essential

diyaCFR military expert Stephen Biddle sees improvements in Iraqi security forces but worries about an erosion in stability if the U.S. military presence is sharply reduced.

June 10, 2008

To help readers better understand the nuances of foreign policy, CFR staff writers and Consulting Editor Bernard Gwertzman conduct in-depth interviews with a wide range of international experts, as well as newsmakers.

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Stephen Biddle, CFR’s senior fellow for defense policy who recently returned from a tour of Iraqi hotspots, says Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) have become a "more capable military partner" for U.S. troops. He says he found continued improvements, particularly in the ability of the ISF to pacify Diyala and Mosul, and in the beginnings of a reconciliation dialogue between Sunnis and Shiites. One negative aspect of the improvements, Biddle says, is the heightened possibility that military leaders might seek to overthrow what is seen as a dysfunctional government. He says a continued U.S. presence is crucial to help stabilize the situation and serve in a peacekeeping role. “What is achievable is sustainable stability, a sense of an end to large-scale violence that holds over a long period of time,” Biddle says. “That I think is potentially doable in Iraq if the United States expends the necessary effort. If we fail in that, there’s a danger that this war could spread throughout the region."

You’ve just returned from another trip to Iraq. How would you sum up Iraq today?

Well, I would say "continued improvements." Several of the things that I thought were still incomplete and needed to happen in order to move toward something like a nationwide cease-fire have either happened or are in the late stages of happening. And I think that’s mostly a good sign. On the flip side of that, there are some new issues that weren’t on the radar screen before that have popped up. So there’s some news on both sides of the ledger. But on balance, I think we’re closer to an end to major violence now than we were in November [when Biddle last visited].

Well let’s first take the good-news side. What were the accomplishments?

Well I think the main event since November has been the situation in Mosul. In November, the central part of the country was pretty much in a conditioned cease-fire.Baghdad and central Iraq had largely stood down. There was a fair amount of ongoing violence in Diyala, and Mosul was a big unsolved problem because al-Qaeda’s surviving remnants had retreated there, along with the remaining Sunni insurgent groups. That, and wrapping up Diyala issues, looked like big challenges to come. I think what’s happened since November has been that there’s been a series of offenses in Diyala and Mosul that look like they’re having substantial success.

As well as in Basra, of course?

Last November, the whole south of Iraq was in what amounted to a Mafioso cease-fire, where three Shiite factions were eying each other warily but had implicitly divided up the economic pie in ways that seemed to have them all more-or-less satisfied, so there wasn’t a lot of open warfare among them. But the stability there was very unclear. Nonetheless, there wasn’t a lot of violence in the South. The Basra offensive has changed that calculation. It’s changed it in ways that look like it’s yielded a more stable outcome.

And the success in Diyala and Mosul—these were Iraqi army operations, right?

Especially Mosul, yes. It’s supported by the U.S. in both cases, but especially in Mosul, the effort has been very predominantly by Iraqi security forces.

So are you able to say if there’s been a qualitative improvement in the ability of the Iraqi forces to operate?

I think there have been a variety of interesting changes in the Iraqi forces, which have made them a more capable military partner. One is they’re bigger. There’s been an enormous expansion in the size of Iraqi Security Forces over the last year or two. I think they’re closing in on 500,000 now between the Iraqi Police, the National Police, the Iraqi Army, and the Iraqi Facilities Protection Service. So if you combine the size of the Iraqi Security Forces, the U.S. military in country, and the Sons of Iraq groups [Sunnis who joined forces with the United States forces against al-Qaeda] you end up substantially above the usual rule of thumb for troop adequacy on counter-insurgency pacification. And that’s an important and new development, stemming from a combination in the expansion in the ISF size and the rising of the Sons of Iraq. The second important factor is related to the first, in that, when we have more troops, it becomes possible to pull people offline for training. We were in such a desperate position with respect to the troop count in Iraq through the end of 2006, for instance, that we were more-or-less obliged to pull Iraqi units straight off the training ground and right into combat.

There have been a variety of interesting changes in the Iraqi forces, which have made them a more capable military partner.

Now they’ve got a lot of people, and what that’s done is it’s made it possible to set up a rotation schedule in which Iraqi Army and the Iraqi National Police units periodically get pulled out of the battlefield and sent off for advanced training. So it has improved the proficiency of the ISF correspondingly. So that’s the second factor. The third factor, though, and probably the most important one, has been as the sectarian tensions in the country went down, Sunnis stood down in cease-fire. And then when the Shiites stood down in cease-fire, the lack of ongoing sectarian violence has dramatically eased the sectarianism problem in the ISF. Now, as sectarian violence goes down, that weakens the militia’s hold over the population because people see them as less necessary for their own survival. As the militias get weaker, they have less and less ability to coerce the families of officers. As the officers get more and more protected against coercive activity, it becomes possible for purges driven by us to keep the ISF clean. You get this virtual spiral developing, where cease-fire enables the weakening of the militias, which enables the reduction of sectarian pressures on the ISF, which makes the ISF increasingly able to behave like nationalists and not like a militia on steroids.

And negative issues?

Well, the negative ones, interestingly, are in some ways the flipside of the positive ones. The Iraqi Security Forces are now so large that there’s some danger of Praetorianism—a coup d’état—growing in Iraq. Interestingly, when you look back to the pre-Petraeus era [before Gen. David Petraeus took command of coalition forces in Iraq in early 2007], one of the reasons that the ISF didn’t grow so fast was because there were fears that if they got too big, they would either pose a threat to Iraq’s neighbors or a threat to Iraq’s civilian government. There was a worry that there’d be a coup d’état if the Iraqi security forces got too big.

Now that it’s bigger, you think this is a possibility?

Well, I think it’s a growing possibility. I think one of the things our presence does is moderate and mitigate that dramatically. It’s much harder to imagine a Praetorian solution, a coup d’état, a military government as long as we are there. If we were to leave, you could easily imagine a situation in which the military as the most effective institution in society decides to take over. The parliament is the least respected institution in Iraqi society.

And the ministries in the executive branch are typically doing a very poor job of delivering essential services to the public. It’s not uncommon in the developing world to get situations in which, in the presence of a dysfunctional and unpopular civilian government, soldiers stand up and seize the reins.

What was your sense of Prime Minister Maliki’s popularity or lack of? Has all this success of the armed forces paid off for him politically?

It has. Not universally, but it clearly has in a couple of ways. One is, it replaced an image of Maliki as a weak reed with an image of Maliki as the strong man in Basra, and then in Sadr City, and then in Mosul. Maliki has been fairly clever politically, too. After he crushed Shiite militias, showing he wasn’t sectarian, he then went after Sunnis in Mosul. The idea that Maliki would go after a Shiite militia, and one that had been really violent toward Sunnis had an important political effect on the elected Sunni leadership in Baghdad. There are negotiations ongoing about the Sunnis returning to the government for instance.

We can still secure some important war aims if we play our cards right in Iraq. If we fail to do that, the result could be catastrophic.

It’s not universal. Many of the same leaders of these cease-fire groups—the Sons of Iraq—have a much more mixed view about this. The elected Sunni leadership, I think, has been very impressed with the results of Basra. It’s clearly helped Maliki politically.

Can you talk a bit about this Status of Force agreement and what the purpose of it is?

Right now, our presence in Iraq is legally authorized under a UN Security Council Resolution. That provides the legal basis that enables us to use military force in Iraq. We would have preferred to just renew the Security Council resolution. It expires late this fall. The Iraqis didn’t want to be viewed as a ward of the United Nations anymore. They wanted to be treated like a sovereign country. Sovereign countries do Status of Forces agreements with the U.S., they don’t do UN resolutions. We didn’t want that for a variety of reasons. Amongst which being, there are more countries in Iraq than just the U.S. The UN Security Council resolution is an umbrella authorization for all of them to operate in Iraq. If instead you go to a Status of Forces deal, that has to be done bilaterally for every power operating in Iraq. We failed to get the Iraqis to agree to renewing the Security Council resolution.

So as a result, we’ve been in a long negotiation with them over the specific content of the Status of Forces agreement to substitute for the Security Council resolution. A lot of this has been controversial, both in the United States and in Iraq, over different—and in many cases opposite—issues.

The Iraqis, for example, would like something that approximates a security guarantee. They want a promise from the United States that we will defend them from the Iranians. To do that would amount to a treaty, which would require Senate approval. And the administration does not want to do this because it doesn’t think it could get the Senate to approve. On the flip side, the United States has had to deal with the argument from [congressional] Democrats that the administration is trying to lock in a perpetual U.S. troop presence in Iraq through this Status of Forces agreement even though the United States is trying to avoid anything that looks like a long-term security guarantee.

The mission in Iraq is in the process of changing. We’re going from leading a counter-insurgency war to policing a negotiated peace.

So the two sides are very much at loggerheads over what, if any, guarantees the United States will provide to the territorial security of Iraq in the future. The second set of problems has to do with the status of, especially security contractors like Blackwater. The Iraqis want the ability to regulate them legally. They want the contractors to operate under Iraqi law and be subject to Iraqi prosecution, unlike U.S. soldiers, which would not be. The United States is concerned that we need the contractors—there are not enough troops to do what we need to do without them—and we’re afraid that their operations would become nonviable if they came under Iraqi law and it became possible for Iraqis to prosecute. The United States also wants to make sure we retain the ability to detain Iraqi citizens without prior Iraqi authorization. 

Well if there’s no agreement reached by the end of the year, can we just keep going?

Legally, something has to be in place. If we’re going to have a legally authorized presence, something has to be there. Then this is creating a real crisis deadline. You could always do a temporary extension of the UNSCR [UN Security Council Resolution], or something like that, to patch this thing over until the negotiations can conclude. But there is a hard deadline associated with this. And again, it’s as politically controversial in Iraq, at least, as it is domestically in the United States, but over different issues. The challenge of getting a deal that satisfies the Iraqis and the U.S. Senate simultaneously is going to be very hard. This has nothing to do with some veiled effort by the administration to justify a perpetual troop presence. The administration is just trying to find something that will simultaneously satisfy the Iraqis, the Senate, and the needs of conducting operations there.

Let me ask you one last question which may sound naïve: Is the war in Iraq being won?

I tend not to use words like "win" and "lose." They imply absolute success and absolute failure. Absolute success, I don’t think is possible in the near- to mid-term in Iraq, in the sense of realizing all the war aims that the administration went to war for in 2003. Absolute defeat is possible—we could certainly arrange that if we tried. But I think the range of outcomes in Iraq is somewhere in between what most people think of when they use words like "win" and "lose." I think we can still secure some important war aims if we play our cards right in Iraq. If we fail to do that, the result could be catastrophic. But securing these war aims isn’t going to produce Eden on the Euphrates. It’s not going to yield some kind of Jeffersonian democracy that would act like a beacon to the region and a strong U.S. ally for the future. That’s not achievable. What is achievable is sustainable stability, a sense of an end to large-scale violence that holds over a long period of time. That I think is potentially doable in Iraq if the United States expends the necessary effort. If we fail in that, there’s a danger that this war could spread throughout the region. And that’s a really powerful threat to U.S. interests.

So, in other words, your advice to whoever wins the election is to do what? Be very careful about cutting back too quickly?

Yes, I think that’s right. And the way I would personally put it to a new administration is: The mission in Iraq is in the process of changing. We’re going from leading a counter-insurgency war to policing a negotiated peace. That’s a very different and much less problematic mission for the U.S. But it’s a necessary mission. If we leave a tenuous system of cease-fires without a peacekeeping stabilizer, they’re very likely to collapse with grave consequences for U.S. interests.

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