This has been a good week for arguments about the trends in Iraq here. To recap, on Sunday I called for strategic thinking about Maliki's recent statements which made clear that no national reconciliation bargain would be forthcoming in the near future. Colin Kahl's guest post responded with a defense of at least the potential for bottom-up reconciliation. This generated several interesting rebuttals, including Eric Martin, the pseudonymous Iraq-watcher Badger, and Matthew Yglesias.
Now I'm happy to present a response from Brian Katulis of the Center for American Progress, co-author of the Strategic Reset report which came out this fall. Kahl and Katulis represent some of the strongest and most articulate advocates of their respective positions from within the heart of current Democratic Party thinking about Iraq - they are both rigorous, thoughtful, and know their stuff, and I'm delighted to have been able to provoke and host this debate. I have my own thoughts, of course, which I'll be posting
later this afternoon when I get back from a meeting this weekend.
Unanswered Substantive Policy Questions on Kahl’s Iraq Argument
Colin Kahl has made valuable contributions to the Iraq policy debate, most recently in his thoughtful post on Abu Aardvark earlier this week.
The end state he outlines for Iraq – a highly decentralized state, but NOT simplistically drawn along three regions as proposed by Senator Joe Biden and others – is a probable outcome. The real debate, then, is about means rather than ends – how do we get there from here?
And on this score, Kahl’s argument suffers from important substantive weaknesses. In sum, simply offering a tactical military plan that hardens up different sides in Iraq’s internal conflicts may in fact make an accommodation among Iraq’s increasingly fractured and fragmented groups more difficult to achieve. There are four key problems with his analysis.
1. Narrowly focusing on military tactics is unlikely to achieve a true equilibrium inside of Iraq.
At the core of Kahl’s argument is a tactical military plan not dissimilar to the one being pursued by the Bush administration: train and support an increasingly diverse set of Iraqi security forces organized at different levels along mostly sectarian and ethnic lines. The main thrust of the argument is that this security support will somehow change the strategic calculations of Iraqi political actors to achieve some sort of equilibrium inside of the country. Yet Kahl’s argument never fully demonstrates how these measures would actually advance reconciliation, or even its less ambitious goal – “accommodation.”
Iraq’s multiple internal conflicts at their core are vicious struggles for power. Kahl’s argument for a continued U.S. military training and assistance effort is that it will achieve a degree of internal balance among the competing Iraqi factions by giving a boost to Sunni irregular forces that were previously insecure in the face of Shi’a dominance, and that these groups will responsibly act in a defensive manner.
Accepting the conclusions of his argument requires several leaps of faith – first, that the bottom-up security mobilization is actually resulting in a coherent consolidation at local and provincial levels, and second, that some stable accommodation can result on a broader national level. At the local level, recent sniping among Sunni tribal leaders and long standing rivalries between competing groups in places like Ramadi and Fallujah raise questions of whether true bottom up reconciliation is occurring. The ongoing security challenges in the mixed Shi’a-Sunni province of Diyala raises serious concerns about whether a true consolidation is even happening at the local level. (And people should watch carefully what transpires in Diyala in the coming months)
Kahl overstates the role that the surge of U.S. forces had in leading to the turn of Sunni forces against Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI). As Marc Lynch and other experts have noted, the shift in strategy by Sunni tribes against AQI predated the surge. Kahl argues that a drawdown of U.S. troops might serve to reincentivize Sunnis to make common cause with AQI to defend against Shi’a. But the reverse may in fact be true. There could be an even greater risk that a long-term U.S. military presence in Iraq could create incentives for Sunnis to turn back to their cooperation with AQI elements.
More broadly, Kahl’s argument fails to acknowledge large swathes of the country and other aspects of intra-Iraqi battles. Kahl focuses on local security initiatives in Sunni areas and along Sunni-Shi’a fault lines, ignoring important dynamics in other parts of the country.
In the southern part of Iraq, the Shi’a heartland in the only Shi’a-majority Arab country in the world, there has been a complicated intra-Shi’a civil war playing out in the streets of Basra, Diwaniya, and Nasiriya for the past few years. This southern part of the country is an important strategic center of gravity, containing the vast majority of the country’s oil and gas resources and some of the holiest sites to Shi’a Islam. Kahl’s argument fails to mention that the U.S. and Coalition force presence in this part of the country is minimal and is doing little to shape these intra-Shi’a tensions. On a separate front, it is not clear how an approach focused narrowly on military tactics can do anything meaningful to address growing tensions along the Arab-Kurdish fault lines in northern Iraq.
2. Decentralized security initiatives could impede Iraq’s national accommodation.
Others have pointed this out – but it is worth noting again – that Kahl’s “minimalist” notion of national accommodation is actually quite maximalist – getting to a deal on dividing up the country’s considerable oil resources and defining the powers of central vs. regional vs. provincial vs. local government is no small task in today’s Iraq. Yet Kahl offers no clear plan about how to get there from here – how to get Iraqis to yes on the oil law and implementing legislation, beyond a few vague ideas on how a set of military tactics and a bottom up security assistance program might create conditions more favorable for an accommodation.
Furthermore, the crux of Kahl’s argument – that decentralized security assistance might promote accommodation – remains unproven. Rather than reassuring the Shi’a-dominated central government that these initiatives are in the best interest of the country, it has done the opposite and put Shi’a leaders on edge.
Maliki is using the tribal “awakenings” to avoid responsibility for national reconciliation. This does not bode well for even the minimalist approach necessary for a stable sectarian equilibrium. Maliki’s repeated opposition to working with Sunni irregular forces combined with Shi’a insecurity on their hold on power also augurs poorly for integration of these forces into some sort of national structure. Why, after all, would Maliki and his Shi’a coalition want to supply resources to people they believe are bent to destroy them? The United Iraqi Alliance’s statement last month calling for an end to these security initiatives bodes poorly for the notion that these tactical military initiatives might actually result in a sustainable equilibrium. The evidence demonstrates that these decentralized security efforts could actually make the chances of national accommodation and a sustainable security arrangement LESS likely, rather than more likely.
3. An extended U.S. training and support mission in Iraq is not likely to achieve the desired results without addressing the underlying political disputes between Iraqis.
Even if a credible plan can be devised on paper that brings the different pieces Iraq’s complicated puzzle together in a true national equilibrium – one that doesn’t simply focus narrowly along the Shi’a-Sunni fault lines – serious questions remain about the U.S. capacity to support these military tactics.
The views of many of our ground troops – captured best by twelve former Army captains who served in Iraq and seven soldiers serving in Iraq earlier this year (two of whom died in Iraq earlier this fall) – demonstrate serious skepticism in the ranks; for the perspective many U.S. troops, the fundamental problem with Iraqi security forces isn’t skills building or training, but motivation and allegiance.
Moreover, if Kahl’s plan advocates a training mission along the same lines of the Center for New American Security plan for Iraq of “phased transition” – one based on a formula of removing combat troops but keeping a diminished troop presence in the country – then he fails to answer how this could actually be implemented. Numerous other military analysts – including Steven Biddle at the Council on Foreign Relations and Andrew Exum who served with the U.S. military in Iraq , have pointed out that simply splitting the difference on troops levels won’t work logistically. Increasing the number of trainers while withdrawing combat troops will create a force protection nightmare that won’t likely yield significant results.
Furthermore, arguing that a reduced presence can accomplish more in Iraq than what was NOT already achieved in the past four years with a larger force is somewhat disingenuous. As retired general Kevin Ryan pointed out earlier this year, the missions frequently outlined for a possible residual U.S. presence in Iraq would likely require the current level of troops to remain the same – because the United States never had enough troops in Iraq in the first place.
Finally, there remains the question of how stabilizing the U.S. presence truly is. U.S. forces remain the target of the vast majority of attacks in Iraq and a majority of the Iraqi public say these attacks are acceptable.
4. Attempting to deal with Iraq’s conflicts in isolation of a volatile Middle East will not achieve equilibrium. The fourth problem with Kahl’s analysis is that it treats Iraq in isolation of the security interests of Iraq’s neighbors – many of whom are already acting to assert their own interests inside of Iraq’s multiple internal conflicts. Getting to equilibrium inside of Iraq will require some degree of accommodation and cooperation with Iraq’s neighbors – a complicated thing to pull off given the diverse set of security interests involved. But getting to yes inside of Iraq will require some sort of coordination with Iraq’s neighbors – a diplomatic surge of the sort outlined by individuals like Carlos Pascual at Brookings.
Kahl offers some important and textured analysis on the nature of the challenges ahead in Iraq – and clearly there are no easy answers or policy solutions. But his argument is incomplete and relies too heavily on tactical military steps that ultimately may not lead to a sustainable consolidation and equilibrium. After four and a half years of trying to make things a little better and make tactical shifts, it is time for a comprehensive strategic shift, not only in Iraq, but in the region.