Waging Peace, November 2010, Pages 63-64

Iraq: Mission Transformed?

At a Sept. 7 program at the United States Institute of Peace in Washington, DC, two speakers discussed the end of combat operations in Iraq and the changing nature of the U.S. mission there.

Antony Blinken, security adviser to Vice President Joseph Biden, began by stating that the end of combat operations was part of President Barack Obama's commitment to end the war responsibly. While Iraqis now have "lead responsibility" for their own safety, he said, the U.S. intends to remain engaged in Iraq. According to Blinken, perhaps the most significant change in mission are the new responsibilities given to the State Department, which will assume many of the tasks performed by the military, including a police-training program starting in October of 2011.

Meanwhile, he said, U.S. forces will continue to advise and work with Iraqi security forces on counter-terrorism operations, as well as to provide protection to American civilians and to critical infrastructure. Blinken also cited various efforts to strengthen commercial, agricultural, intergovernmental and cultural efforts in the country, the goal of which, he said, is to strengthen a civilian- led U.S.-Iraqi partnership while simultaneously "deepening Iraqi sovereignty."

Placing the current policy change in context, Blinken stated that "politics have emerged as the basic currency for doing business in Iraq." He challenged the media's portrayal of unrelenting violence, claiming that the number of weekly or monthly "security incidents" is at its lowest level since 2003, when the U.S. invaded. This downward trend in violence may hold the promise that "the quiet blessings of a normal life are increasingly within reach," Blinken said, claiming that recent attacks by al-Qaeda have not managed to relight the sectarian fuse or undermine confidence in the government.

Addressing the difficulties surrounding the most recent elections, Blinken noted that the process of forming a new government already had survived a number of "sky is falling" moments. Moreover, despite the fact that "the sun has yet to rise on a new Iraqi government," the country has managed to avoid a power vacuum, he said, due to the presence of a caretaker government. Blinken cautioned, however, that a new government must be formed in order to maintain the Iraqi people's trust in democracy and resolve the status of Kirkuk, the distribution of oil revenue, and the integration of Kurdish and Sunni militias into the national security forces.

Dr. Laith Kubba, director of the Middle East and North Africa Program at the National Endowment for Democracy and a former senior adviser to Iraqi Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari, agreed with Blinken on a number of points, but also expressed serious concerns—his first being the Iraqi perception of the U.S. withdrawal. According to Kubba, Iraqis viewed the reduction in troops as the result of a bad U.S. economy and an overstretched military, rather than of the readiness of the Iraqi government and security forces to take control. On top of this, the current political impasse has compounded Iraqi disillusionment, he said, explaining that "the novelty of democracy is wearing off" for the Iraqi people due to rampant corruption and a dysfunctional government.

Kubba also questioned Blinken's optimism over the ongoing political process, arguing that Iraqi politicians were weakening the constitution to the point of making it irrelevant. "If there was a strong Iraqi army today and that Iraqi army staged a coup," he hypothesized, "it would be welcomed by a lot of Iraqis who want to see a functioning government." If, however, the political process fails or integration talks among the government, Kurdish forces and the Sons of Iraq break down, Kubba expressed concern that the Iraqi army is not strong enough to step in and maintain order. The resulting power vacuum would see mass violence and would necessitate foreign intervention. If the U.S. should choose not to intervene, Kubba implied that other powers would, possibly sparking a regional conflict.

Finally, Kubba stated, the U.S. withdrawal would unavoidably strengthen Iran's influence in Iraq. He urged U.S. policymakers to strengthen cooperation or possibly form a stability pact with Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Syria in order to avoid a vacuum in which Iran could grab significant power.

In response, Blinken pointed to a number of polls in which 75 to 80 percent of Iraqis consistently wanted U.S. troops out of Iraq. The withdrawal therefore should strengthen Iraqi perception that the U.S. makes good on its commitments, he reasoned. "Many Iraqis did not believe that we would be out of the cities a year ago and we did," he said. "Many Iraqis did not believe that we would end our combat mission and draw down to 50,000 troops and we did; there are some who do not believe we will remove our troops pursuant to an agreement with the government of Iraq by May 11—we will." The evidence of the new emphasis on U.S. civil engagement with Iraq should allay negative Iraqi perceptions of the withdrawal, he added.

Dismissing the possibility of a coup, Blinken claimed that Iraqis and their politicians were committed to a political process to resolve their differences. He further argued that Iraqi politicians had perhaps pushed the constitutional envelope but still remained within the framework of the constitution.

Responding to the issue of the integration of armed internal groups, Blinken described the Kurdish party's current status as pivotal in the formation of a new government. Such a status, he felt, helped strengthen their participation in the current system and diminished any chance of direct armed conflict.

Blinken conceded that Iran would inevitably have influence in Iraq, but pointed out that "Iraq has developed very strong antibodies" to foreign influence and intervention, including the U.S., Iran or any other power. Moreover, he noted, the Iranian regime spent a large amount of money attempting to influence the recent elections "and got very little to show for it"—perhaps revealing a burgeoning Iraqi nationalism. Blinken defended the Obama administration's efforts to strengthen ties with regional partners, but stressed that, in the end, Iraq's politicians and people had to be involved in such decisions. In any regional negotiations, he concluded, "our basic approach is nothing about you, without you."

To read more about this event, visit <www.usip.org/events/mission-transformed-antony-blinken-the-us-policy-towards-iraq>.

Andrew Stimson