Bridge On The River Euphrates

September 2, 2008 Topics: Security Tags: Six-Day WarSoviet UnionThe Israel LobbyIraq War

Bridge On The River Euphrates

Mini Teaser: The much-vaunted surge has made Iraq safer. But more boots in the desert is not the only reason security has improved. As U.S. forces get ready to leave, we have to face some inconvenient political realities.

by Author(s): Colin H. Kahl

Throughout 2007, the administration also resisted efforts by Congress to put teeth into the so-called benchmarks established to measure progress toward accommodation. And, for more than two years, the perception of a blank check to the Iraqi government has been reinforced by regular "attaboy" video conferences where President Bush assures al-Maliki that the prime minister has his full support.

As Robinson demonstrates, Bush's unconditional embrace of al-Maliki resulted from the fundamental assumption driving the administration's strategic assessments from the start-namely, that the primary problem with Iraq's government is one of capacity, not political will. But both were and remain problems, and the lack of strings attached to U.S. support for the Iraqi government left the latter completely unaddressed. Robinson reveals numerous examples of U.S. commanders and diplomats attempting to use tactical leverage to push Iraqi officials toward political compromise, only to have their message and effectiveness undermined by the complete absence of conditionality at the strategic level.

The Bush administration has consistently missed opportunities to condition overall support to the ISF on Iraqi-government commitments to nonsectarianism and political accord, which has often exacerbated communal violence. If the next administration repeats that mistake, the prospects for renewed strife in Iraq are high. Given growing confidence among al-Maliki and other Iraqi leaders in the capabilities of the isf, some may question whether U.S. assistance still provides useful leverage. But the truth is that recent Iraqi operations in Basra, Sadr City, Mosul and elsewhere would not have been successful without "critical enablers" from the U.S. military, including special-operations forces, combat advisors, air and fire support, logistical and medevac support, and intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance assets. Underneath their increasingly boastful rhetoric, most Iraqi leaders-civilian and military-understand they are not fully capable of providing domestic order, combating terrorism or deterring external foes without some level of continued support from the U.S. military.

This provides the next president, as Robinson correctly observes, with important carrots and sticks-if he chooses to use them. As American forces continue to draw down and shift from a lead combat role to what the military calls "overwatch," the new administration must make residual assistance to the isf dependent on progress toward political accommodation, including full integration and employment of the sois, fair elections, efforts to address the needs of displaced persons and equitable service provision. Support should also be conditioned on commitment to the rule of law and Iraqi assurances that the ISF will not be used as a tool to advance sectarian agendas. And Robinson correctly points out that the next president should "ensure that the U.S. military is not put in the position of supporting sectarian actions."

Implementing a new policy of strategic conditionality also requires avoiding the impression that the United States seeks a permanent Korea-style military presence in Iraq, because doing so actually reverses the leverage the United States should have with the Iraqi government. Most Iraqi leaders want continued U.S. military support to the ISF for several years, but, with the exception of the Kurds, they do not desire a permanent presence. Consequently, if the next administration attempts to lay the groundwork for an indefinite military footprint, it would be forced to give in to Iraqi demands, rather than vice versa, in exchange for letting the United States stay.

As Robinson concludes, the next president must capitalize on the surge to "bring the war to a soft landing." When charting this course,

The new president has the great advantage of starting with a clean slate and no special relationships or past commitments. He can adopt a new policy that builds on the successes achieved in 2007-2008 and provides the critical missing ingredients that can only be provided by presidential authority. The basic conceptual change needed is to change the paradigm from war-making to peace-making and to make achievement of the elusive political solution the policy's central goal.

This is exactly right. Navigating a soft landing in Iraq entails more than "staying the course." It will require the next commander in chief to manage an inevitable American drawdown in a way that produces political accord and sustainable stability in Iraq. And ultimately, that means developing a strategy, from day one, to hold Iraqi leaders accountable.


Colin H. Kahl is an assistant professor in the Security Studies Program at Georgetown University's Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service and a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security.

Essay Types: Book Review