03 March 2010

Iraq’s Fragile Future (and the US Way Ahead)

As Iraqis prepare to vote in this Sunday’s national parliamentary elections, I think it’s critical to take a moment to examine the current state of affairs in Iraq and re-assess the US strategy for the next 12-24 months.

Tom Ricks’ recent New York Times op-ed, “Extending Our Stay in Iraq,” offers an excellent summary of the current situation in Iraq and the complex challenges that our military/civilian leaders face in formulating a plan for the way ahead. [Also, check out the full version of Ricks’ report, published by CNAS]. Ultimately, we must ask ourselves two key questions: 1) What will Iraq look like in 2-3 years? (in terms of security, governance, and economics); and 2) How should the US proceed in order to enable the best (or least worst) outcome?

Despite the significant progress that has been made in Iraq over the last 2-3 years, it’s clear that there is still a long way to go before the country is likely to remain stable and secure over the long term (10-15 years). Although the surge was successful in terms of making gains in security and the development of Iraqi Security Forces (ISF), it still has yet to provide any real, lasting improvements in governance. As Ricks explains, “the larger goal of the surge was to facilitate a political breakthrough, which has not happened.” The default mindset of all of the various political parties and actors remains very much a “zero-sum game” mentality – in order to advance my narrow interests, I must grab as much power as possible when able. This primarily stems from the political calculus that the prospects for long-term stability and peaceful transfer of power are low, making it imperative to “get yours” while you’re in a position to do so.

Drivers of Instability

The most useful way to understand the current situation in Iraq and predict the future is by examining the main drivers of instability (and/or points of tension). For those who have closely followed the conflict in Iraq over the last 7 years, this list will look quite familiar. And that’s the point – none of these major issues have been satisfactorily resolved. Without some sort of political compromise, any of these divisive issues could quickly ignite significant levels of violence between different ethno-sectarian groups (each of which is essentially aligned with a political party/coalition running in the upcoming elections):

1) Sunni-Shia tensions over sharing of power and strength of the central government. This was the primary underlying force behind the sectarian violence that almost drove Iraq into a civil war in 2006-2008. Here’s how I conceptualize the problem: Think of a small, slow-burning fire – this is the historic tension between Sunni and Shia that has always (and probably will always) existed in Iraq. In a situation where there are relatively high levels of security, economic opportunity, and access to services, this fire continues to burn behind the scenes but causes little/no damage. However, when some sort of accelerant is added to the fire, it can rapidly grow to a point that threatens to destroy everything around it. In 2006, the bombing of the Golden Dome mosque in Samarra served as this initial accelerant, initiating a vicious and escalating cycle of violence and fear driven by tit-for-tat violence between Sunni insurgent groups and Shia militias. While the US surge temporarily dampened the large flames, there are still multiple indications of a growing fire between Sunni and Shia groups. It’s very possible that if one of these two groups (likely the Sunnis) feel disenfranchised after the March 07 elections, the conditions will be set for another accelerant to re-ignite a major fire.

There are already serious indications of this being the likely outcome. As the New York Times reported last month, the efforts of Maliki’s government (and the wider Shia movement) to block qualified Sunnis from the upcoming elections resulted in the decision of a sub-party (Saleh al Mutlaq’s Iraqi National Dialogie Front) belonging to Allawi’s Iraqi National Movement (the leading Sunni alliance) to boycott the upcoming elections. This is the end result of a prolonged campaign by various Shia power-players to weaken Sunni influence and block top Sunni’s from running. For more background on these efforts, check out Abu Nasr’s great coverage at Challenge COIN here and here as well as the always-excellent coverage from Musings on Iraq here, here, and here. Also, see the must-read Brooking Institution report Iraq’s Ban on Democracy.”

Along these lines, I’d also like to offer some more anecdotal evidence illustrating the ever-simmering tensions between Sunni and Shia within Baghdad. One of my former Iraqi interpreters, Ali (who is now living in the US thanks to the State Department’s Special Immigrant Visa program), recently told me an alarming story involving threats against his son from Ministry of Education officials. Ali’s son, Hassan (who is a Sunni), has been studying engineering at a major university in Baghdad for nearly two years. About one month ago, he was approached while leaving school and told by uniformed officials from the Ministry of Education (run by the Shia) that he was no longer welcome at the school and if he returned he would be killed. According to Ali, this intimidation of Sunni’s to limit their education has occurred all across Baghdad for the last several months, highlighting one of the many ongoing efforts below the surface to gain more power for the Shia. Unfortunately, Sunnis in positions of power are making similar power grabs across the country as well. These daily events are what maintain the steady flame of Sunni-Shia tension that threatens to explode at any given time.

2) Alignment of various ISF elements with ethno-sectarian groups. As each of the various ethno-sectarian groups have aimed to consolidate power and control, they have developed strategic alliances with various units and elements within the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) – which includes the Iraqi Army (IA), Iraqi Police (IP), Facilities Protection Service (FPS), and Border Police (IBP/DBE) – in order to advance their interests. This situation has grown increasingly more serious over the last year, as highlighted in the recent New York Times op-ed by Najim Abed al Jabouri, a fellow at the Near East South Asia Center for Strategic Studies at the National Defense University, and former mayor of Tal Afar from 2005 to 2008. Najim explains that the situation has deteriorated to the point that, “members of the security forces are often loyal not to the state but to the person or political party that gave them their jobs.”

The police and border officials, for example, are largely answerable to the Interior Ministry, which has been seen (often correctly) as a pawn of Shiite political movements. The same is true of many parts of the Iraqi Army. For example, the Fifth Iraqi Army Division, in Diyala Province northeast of Baghdad, has been under the sway of the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI), the Shiite party that has the largest bloc in Parliament; the Eighth Division, in Diwaniya and Kut to the southeast of the capital, has answered largely to Dawa, the Shiite party of Prime Minister Maliki; the Fourth Division, in Salahuddin Province in northern Iraq, has been allied with one of the two major Kurdish parties, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK).

Based on my recent firsthand experience and observations, this phenomenon is widespread and extremely dangerous for the long-term security and stability of Iraq. In Mosul (during 2008), there was such a high level of tension and mistrust between many of the Sunni IP officers and Kurdish IA officers that we could barely get them to sit together through an entire meeting, never mind getting them to plan and conduct a joint operation. Each unit’s leadership was clearly aligned with one particular party/group and worked only to advance that element’s agenda, oftentimes at the expense of providing security for the populace.

The politicization and “sectarianization” of the Iraqi Security Forces only appears to be getting worse as various groups ratchet up the competition for power. As it stands, the current system of organizing and funding units only exacerbates the problem. Najim correctly asserts that although, “The status quo offers a temporary balance of power between the incumbent parties, likely providing relative peace for the American exit…deep down, ethno-sectarianism creates fault lines that terrorist groups and other states in the Mideast will exploit to keep Iraq weak and vulnerable.” He is exactly right.

3) Kurd-Arab tensions over oil revenue sharing and the role of the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG). Although Sunni-Shia tension and violence has dominated much of the media coverage coming out of Iraq, the conflict between the various Kurd parties (predominately Barzani’s KDP and Talibani’s PUK) and the Arabs (mostly Sunnis in Northern Iraq) has grown increasingly serious over the last two years. The two primary causes of this tension are: 1) The dispute over who owns Kirkuk (and, more importantly, the multitude of proven oil reserves surrounding it). Although the Kurds historically dominated the area around Kirkuk, Saddam’s “Arabization” campaign re-populated much of the city and surrounding areas with transplanted Arabs in order to shift the demographic balance in favor of the Sunnis; 2) The disagreement over how much power the semi-autonomous Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) has in relation to the federal government. The debate over Article 160 (the allocation of political positions/seats and oil revenue) still rages in the North and has nearly led to full-on force-on-force conflict between Iraqi Army forces (loyal to Maliki’s national government) and Kurdish Peshmerga forces (who are the de facto owners of the KRG). For example, disagreements between Peshmerga forces and the Iraqi Army’s First Division over who had primacy in the town of Khanaqin (in Diyala province) nearly erupted into violence during August-September 2008. It took direct negotiations between PM Maliki and KRG President Barzani (after heavy pressure was applied by US Forces) to defuse the situation. Additionally, Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) has attempted to stoke the flames of tension between these two groups with a steady string of suicide attacks and SVBIEDs (car bombs) throughout Kirkuk, Mosul, and other key cities in Northern Iraq.

Recently, we have seen the tension between Kurds and Arabs grow stronger in the lead up to parliamentary elections, particularly in Ninewa province (which is about 60% Sunni, 25% Kurd, and 15% Christian/other). In the 2008 provincial elections, the Sunni-led al Hadba party won the majority of the seats in the provincial council (which had historically been dominated by Kurds) and appointed a new Sunni governor, Athil al Nujayfi (whose brother is a prominent member of the national parliament). The Kurdish-led Ninewa Brotherhood List protested not being included in the new government by announcing that they and 16 districts they controlled would not cooperate with al-Hadbaa, denouncing the party as Baathists. The Kurds went further by saying that no provincial officials could enter the 16 areas without their permission. This resulted in two dramatic confrontations in May 09 when the governor and provincial police chief were stopped from entering Kurdish controlled areas by the Peshmerga. As Joel Wing at Musings on Iraq explains, tensions grew later in the month as locals in Tal Afar (30 miles west of Mosul) demanded that they be annexed by Kurdistan, and then in June pro al-Hadba tribesmen got into a shootout with Peshmerga in Sinjar (a small town near the Syrian border). In August, when three large suicide bombs struck minorities the Brotherhood List and al-Hadba blamed each other rather than insurgents for the attacks. It appears that both parties are using various insurgent groups as proxies to target their opponents as well as win political points with their own constituencies – once again, all of this occurs at the expense of the local populace.

Things have gotten no better as the March 2010 parliamentary elections are nearing. In January 2010 the governor of Ninewa, Athil al Nujayfi, initiated a no confidence vote against the mayor of Sinjar (a Kurd), who turned around and filed a lawsuit against the governor. The Brotherhood List condemned the removal of the mayor as well, claiming that al-Hadba represented Baathists and their henchmen. At the beginning of February, Governor Najafi went to the Tel Kayf district (northwest of Mosul) where protestors threw fruits and vegetables at his car, while Kurdish officials said that the governor had gone to the area without their permission. Later in the month Kurdish parties accused al-Hadba of trying to shut down their offices in the province before the vote, while Governor Najafi held a press conference calling on the central government to have the peshmerga removed from Ninewa. I expect these incidents to continue and likely worsen in the wake of the parliamentary elections as the Arabs and Kurds continue to vie for control of the strategic cities of Kirkuk (the northern oil capital) and Mosul (a key economic and political hub).

4) Intra-Shia tension over the role of Iran in Iraq’s future government. The lead-up to this weekend’s parliamentary elections has also highlighted the serious disagreements between the leading Shia parties/blocs. The main point of tension between the groups is what level of Iranian influence they are willing to tolerate in Iraq. While all of the Shia parties have significant ties to Iran and the Iranian regime, there are clearly differing levels of support for Iran’s push to stay intimately involved in Iraq’s day-to-day affairs. Although we’ve recently seen more signs from PM Maliki that he’s willing to stand up to the Iranians’ push for influence in Iraq (as he did in Dec 09 during a dispute over one of the southern oil fields and during Operation Knight’s Charge in Basra in March-May 2008 aimed at limiting the growing influence of Sadrist elements with ties to Iran’s IRGC-QF), there is still a strong relationship between his Dawa party and the Iranian regime. However, Maliki’s recent formation of the “State of Law” party (primarily composed of former Dawa members) signals his intention to at least nominally distance himself from Iranian influence. Maliki has been under heavy pressure from Iranian officials to join with the other top Shia party/bloc – the Iraqi National Alliance (composed primarily of members of Hakim’s Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI) and the Sadr List). For right now, it appears that Maliki’s State of Law party is likely to win the highest number of parliamentary seats. The key question in the wake of the elections, however, will be the extent to which the two main Shia parties are able to agree and compromise in order to form a coherent political bloc (in opposition to the Sunni bloc). In my opinion, the tension and disagreement between the Shia parties is actually healthy and will continue to go on into the distant future until Iraq is strong enough to form a government that can truly stand up to the ridiculously high levels of Iranian influence and maneuvering in Iraq. Although the intra-Shia disagreements still serve as a driver of instability, they are the least likely to cause significant violence in the short run, as the Shia are mostly willing to compromise on their internal differences in order to appear united in the face of opposition from Sunnis and Kurds. For more background on Iran’s influence and intentions in Iraq, see this excellent post (and all of the other excellent coverage) at Musings on Iraq.

The Way Ahead in Iraq

Based on an understanding of the current situation in Iraq (as defined by the drivers of instability that I discussed above), I’d like to throw out some points of consideration as we discuss/debate the future US strategy in Iraq.

1) Election Outcome: I expect that Iraqis will likely vote along ethno-sectarian lines, as they did in 2005. Ultimately, the elections will largely entrench the already prominent parties. The real period of high risk will occur post-election. Coalition building and government formation (between the various parties/blocs) after the elections will likely require months of negotiations, posting significant governance challenges in the interim. Additionally, unlike in 2005, voters can choose individual candidates rather than selecting a particular bloc, potentially upsetting pre-election agreements and post-vote bloc cohesion. Recent polling data (from mid-Feb) highlighted on Musings in Iraq, seems to confirm this assessment. Respondents were asked the question, “Who would you vote for in the 2010 parliamentary elections?” with these results:

29.9% - State of Law – PM Maliki (Dawa)

21.8% - Iraqi National Movement – Ex-PM Allawi

17.2% - Iraqi National Alliance – Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI), Sadrists, Ex-PM Jaafari, Iraqi National Congress

10% - Kurdish Alliance – PUK, KDP

5% - Iraqi Unity Movement – Minister Bolani, Sheikh Abu Risha’s Anbar Awakening

2.7% - Iraqi Consensus (Tawafuq) – Iraqi Islamic Party

4.9% - No opinion

2.2% - No response

(+/- 2% margin of error)

So, of the 325 total seats available, I assess that Shia Islamists will win plurality (120-150), Sunni and secular parties will win 60-80 (INM will win most of these), and Kurdish Parties will win 60-70 (KA will take the majority). Since it takes a majority of 163 seats to form a government, this will require the plurality-winning Shia alliance to make an agreement one of the other two groups – most likely one or both of the Kurdish parties.

2) US Forces Drawdown: As President Obama has regularly discussed, his desired endstate is to drawdown all US “combat forces” by September 2010 and all US troops by the end of 2011 in line with the US-Iraqi Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA). Currently, the plan for 2010 is to pull out about 10,000 troops a month for five months, beginning in late spring. That will halve the U.S. military presence this year, with the remainder scheduled to be with­drawn by the end of next year. However, as Ricks’ points out in his excellent piece, “This timing is worrisome.”

The two major concerns with this plan are: 1) The synchronization of the US drawdown with the post-election government formation. Just as US troops are being reduced (and the troops staying in country are focused on pulling out troops and equipment), the fledgling new government will be attempting to form coalitions and begin making more progress in terms of significant governance efforts; 2) The potential for a “tipping point” when the withdrawal of US troops changes the calculus of insurgent groups and militias, making them feel that the time is right to ratchet violence back up. The initial troops that are withdrawn will be from relatively secure and stable areas, but as troops are pulled form more critical areas (especially Anbar, Mosul, Kirkuk, and to some extent Baghdad), there is a much greater risk for increased violence.

These concerns (and others) are likely what has recently prompted GEN Odierno, the top commander of US Forces-Iraq (USF-I), to request a slowdown or halt to the planned withdrawal of US “combat focused” BCTs. As Tom Ricks highlighted in his article at the Foreign Policy blog, Odierno recently publicly requested the extension of a US BCT operating in the critical area of Kirkuk (a major flashpoint for Kurd-Arab tensions during the post-election period). Clearly, this signals serious concern on the part of Odierno, a highly competent and experienced leader who arguably knows and understands Iraq better than anyone else in the US military or government.

So, what does all of this mean for the future of US force levels and US strategy in Iraq? What should the US do based on the increasing potential for ethno-sectarian violence and a continuing state of weak, ineffective government? As Ricks argues in his piece, we have little choice but to adjust our plan based on the changing situation on the ground in Iraq. We must begin a dialogue with the new Iraqi government (and other key power players) to consider modifying the SOFA in order to allow for a greater role for US forces in maintaining stability in the fragile post-election period. It’s just as important to define the mission and authorities of the US forces that will remain as it is to define the number of troops. Concurrently, we must also begin developing a plan to maintain a force of 30,000-40,000 US troops in Iraq for the next 2-3 years (which will need to be synchronized with the Afgan surge as well). While this will clearly be a very tough sell politically for Obama, I believe he has no other choice. I echo the comments of Josh McLaughlin (who is on his way back to Iraq for a third go-around right now) in his recent post, “You break it, you buy it. As much as I hate to admit it, I’m ok with staying if it means we finish what we started.


  1. The Thunder Run has linked to this post in the blog post From the Front: 03/04/2010 News and Personal dispatches from the front and the home front.

  2. Hi,

    Couple comments.

    1) Arguments that Iraq could slip back into large scale fighting I fined flawed, namely because they lack any kind of motivation or means.

    One main argument is that if it takes months as expected to put together a new government this will lead to fighting. It took 3 months to put together the provincial councils after the Jan. 09 elections and violence didn't go up, in fact attacks and deaths took a major drop in that period. The Supreme Council got shut out of a lot of councils, and the Kurds were totally excluded from Ninewa but neither turned to the gun. Why would they do that this year?

    I think a lot of people that argue Iraq will fall back into civil war are just looking for an excuse for things to go bad rather than actually figuring out what's going on in the country. I mean look at the long list of events that have been trumpeted as possible flash points and none of them have reignited large scale fighting. There was the integration of the Sons of Iraq, the Arab-Kurd dispute, the lead-up and aftermath of the 2009 elections, the withdrawal of U.S. forces from the cities, the run-up to the 2010 vote, etc. People just keep on adding on more events.

    Plus a lot of the major actors in violence are at low points right now. Al Qaeda is largely marginalized and reduced to terrorism. The Sunni insurgency is only really strong in Ninewa, and even there attacks are down overall because of al-Hadbaa's victory in Jan. 09, Sadr disbanded the Mahdi Army, and the new one hasn't carried out any attacks upon U.S. forces, the Special Groups only carry out about 4-5 attacks a month, and with the Iraqi security forces stronger there's not much reason for the average Shiite to turn to a militia for protection.

    In the end, I would only predict a return to fighting if some kind of power vacuum emerged where people wouldn't turn to the government for protection.

    2) That causes problems for the argument to keep large numbers of troops in Iraq. It also assumes that if fighting started up again, the Iraqi government would allow U.S. forces back out into the streets. I have big doubts that they would do that.

    The main reason to keep U.S. forces in Iraq is because they don't have the capabilities to protect the country from external threats. No real air force, no artillery, not many tanks, etc. The Defense Minister has been saying for a couple years now that they will not be ready until 2020. That means a large advisory and training contingent, which I would fully expect to happen.

    Finally, Odierno has wanted to keep large numbers of U.S. troops in Iraq since he became commander, so you also have to calculate that when listening to his statements. He's also most concerned about the Arab-Kurd dispute, and in that case the U.S. can only help maintain the status quo, not resolve it. Seeing as how the U.S. has not been able to get any major breakthroughs on the issue in 7 years, I don't expect anything better in the future.

  3. 期待你發表的新文章!跟你說一聲加油。 ........................................