One of the main challenges for the new Iraqi government, if and when it is established, will be to build a military that is trained and equipped, can cope with internal instability in the short term, and be a source of regional stability in the long term. Given the challenges facing the Iraqi state, an American-Iraqi agreement must regulate security relations between the countries in a way that in the future allows Iraq to offset Iran’s and Turkey’s strength, without being a threat to Iraq’s weaker neighbors.
On August 31, 2010, President Obama announced the end of the military combat operation in Iraq, ongoing since spring 2003. According to the current agreement, signed at the end of the Bush administration, the last American soldier is scheduled to leave Iraq no later than December 31, 2011. At this stage, it appears that President Obama is indeed committed to withdrawing all American soldiers from Iraq by this date. But what will the situation be then, and is Iraq prepared for it? Recently, Babakir Zibari, commander of the Iraqi army, has said that without the support of the United States, his soldiers will not be prepared to confront the security threats before 2020.
And indeed, it appears that the withdrawal of forces is primarily a function of President Obama’s desire to keep a campaign promise, regardless of the level of violence on the ground or the progress in building Iraqi state institutions, particularly the army. In any case, American army personnel will be required in Iraq in the future as well, at least to maintain and operate part of the American weapon systems left behind, as well as others the Iraqis are now seeking to purchase.
The continued American presence cannot ensure an improvement in the Iraqi domestic situation, but training, equipment, and consulting for the Iraqi security forces are essential for building the Iraqi state. The Iraqis are hard pressed to handle terrorism on their sovereign territory effectively and to prevent external intervention in their territory, which will likely increase when the Americans depart. Everything beyond this – such as positioning Iraq as a regional power that can defend its sovereign territory from outside aggression and fight beyond the country’s borders – requires an American-Iraqi partnership for many years, which is a basic interest of both sides.
What form is the future American presence in Iraq likely to take? At least in the early years, perhaps it will resemble security relations between the United States and the small Gulf states. This means leasing of bases, sales of advanced weaponry, stationing of equipment, and ongoing training. But the American military presence in Iraq also helps mitigate internal tensions. This is true of the Iraqi-Kurdish rift (the renewal of violence could hasten a Kurdish declaration of independence and increase Turkish intervention in Iraq), as well as the need to stand by the heads of the Sunni tribes who fear that al-Qaeda will avenge their aid to the Americans.
A continued military presence over time, even if it is smaller, is important to the success of the Iraqi model. Although the current American president was elected in part for his opposition to the war in Iraq and his promise of a quick withdrawal, the American investment is likely to be worthwhile if Iraq becomes an American ally in the region. This would make it easier for the Americans to contain Iran, certainly if it has nuclear capability, and to ensure the free flow of oil from the Gulf.
True, Iraq’s Arab neighbors would like to see a continued American military presence in the region, mainly in order to deter Iran. And in fact, Iraq would not be able to defend itself from external aggression, which would allow Iran to interfere in Iraq’s domestic affairs very easily. But even if a continued American presence would benefit the Iraqi state and contribute to regional stability, from a domestic political perspective the American president, even after the Congressional elections, will find it difficult to explain why, along with the difficulties in Afghanistan, he is leaving American troops in another Middle East conflict arena. A formal request from the new Iraqi government for an American military presence beyond January 2012 would make it easier for the Obama administration to do this. An American refusal of such a request would not be expected to ease the Iraqi domestic situation, and would certainly be an annoyance to the moderate forces in the region.
The challenge will be how to create domestic stability and at the same time build an effective external defensive force not only mandated to fight terrorism but is also a trained and equipped national army. Some claim that a change in the name of the American mission in Iraq from “Operation New Dawn” to “advice and assistance” to the Iraqi forces is nothing more than re-branding, especially since the Americans continue to take an active role in thwarting terrorist actions on Iraq’s territory by providing aerial, intelligence, and logistical assistance, and sometimes even actual fighting.
Furthermore, building the Iraqi army cannot be separated from building the country. Iraq is far from a consolidated state unit, certainly not in the modern sense. The Iraqi army is, to a large extent, a microcosm of Iraqi society – and like Iraqi society, the army must eliminate corruption, improve the level of its forces, and ensure that its soldiers are loyal to the state and not to the ethnic group or tribe they come from, or even worse, to armed militias.
Iraq is rebuilding its military following the controversial American decision to disband it immediately after the invasion in 2003, yet so far the situation on the ground is discouraging: the Iraqi army has not imposed its authority in all parts of the country, and most of the force (of 670,000 men) is responsible for internal security. The air force is unlikely to be capable before late 2011 of providing air cover for the fight against terrorism, not to mention defending Iraqi airspace. The navy is not sufficiently equipped or trained to defend the export of oil, or even its own facilities.
How can the Iraqi military deal with a new wave of violence? The former US commander in Iraq, General Odierno, left the “door open” to continued American military involvement in Iraq, explaining that if the Iraqi forces are a total failure, the Americans will return to combat roles in Iraq. For this purpose, the Americans must remain sufficiently flexible and fulfill the specific missions at every given moment from the six central deployment bases they will retain. The United States intends to leave a not-insignificant diplomatic and civilian force in Iraq, but tens of thousands of private contractors and a large diplomatic staff cannot prevent erosion in the US army’s security achievements since 2007; this can be done only by an appropriately trained and equipped Iraqi army. Against the backdrop of increased tensions between Kurds and Arabs and a systematic violation of Iraqi sovereignty by hostile neighbors, Iraq’s future to a large extent depends on the effectiveness of its army in coping with the challenges it faces. Until it can stand on its own two legs, there is no substitute for an American military presence.
At some stage, the sides will need to make changes to their current agreement, or alternatively, to create a new agreement that will ensure security cooperation such as what exists in other places, while suiting it to the complex situation in Iraq. Finding a political formula that would re-label the American mission as a “peacekeeping force” while it continues to build the Iraqi army does not require a large number of troops, and would allow the United States to develop a long term strategic partnership with Iraq that combines a moral commitment with strategic thinking.
The Institute for National Security Studies (INSS) is an independent academic institute that studies key issues relating to Israel's national security and Middle East affairs. Through its mixture of researchers with backgrounds in academia, the military, government, and public policy, INSS is able to contribute to the public debate and governmental deliberation of leading strategic issues and offer policy analysis and recommendations to decision makers and public leaders, policy analysts, and theoreticians, both in Israel and abroad. As part of its mission, it is committed to encourage new ways of thinking and expand the traditional contours of establishment analysis.