Amidst all the other issues prominent in the American debate today, Iraq risks moving off the radar screen. Even some of its traditional major experts in the U.S. government, such as General Ray Odierno, General David Petraeus and Vice President Joe Biden, have recently moved on to broader agendas that allow less time for focusing on what was clearly our nation's major foreign-policy issue just four short years ago. And American citizens as well as members of Congress are understandably tired of reading about yet one more suicide bombing, one more spat between Prime Minister Maliki and another major Iraqi leader, one more allegation of Iranian subterfuge in Iraq's internal politics.
So I will keep this op-ed short and sweet. Three main points need to be made about the situation in Iraq as the United States accelerates its fall drawdown of forces and prepares for the possibility of taking all its troops home by December 31. That is what the currently binding 2008 accord between Maliki and President Bush would require us to do unless it is soon revised.
1) Iraq remains far less violent than before. Of course everyone knows that violence levels in Iraq are well below where they were from 2004-2007. But with the spectacular attacks of this summer, some have the impression that things have gotten much worse, and sloppy journalists contribute to the confusion by sometimes talking about a major uptick in violence that would seem to have reversed a large part of the gains of the last four years.
There has been no such uptick in violence. Even as U.S. forces left Iraq's cities in 2009, even as Iraqis went to the polls in early 2010 and then spent almost the entire rest of the year trying to forge a coalition government, even as nearly 100,000 GIs went home as American forces scaled back to just six "advise and assist brigades" at the end of last summer, the trajectory of Iraqi civilian war deaths has continually trended downward. Obviously if you look at the graphs after a bad day or bad week, the immediate data will be unsettling. But there has never been a sustained period—say a whole season—when Iraq has systematically gotten worse since 2007.
That fact is, among other things, a credit to Iraqi security forces, who have become large, strong and increasingly professional. They have stepped up as U.S. forces have first stepped back, then begun a major redeployment home. Iraq is still a dangerous place to be sure, but it is about 95 percent safer statistically than it was in the dog days of, say, 2006. The year 2011 has been somewhat better than 2010, which was itself somewhat better than 2009. All of this provides reasonable grounds for hope.
2) Iraq's politics, by contrast, have gone backwards. If you want to look for bad news, this is the place—and it is a very unsettling and important development, to be sure. My colleague Ken Pollack writes convincingly of a political system that has become stalemated and a concept for a grand coalition government that has not played out the way we hoped. Iraq's top two leaders do not speak and despise each other. The ministries of interior and defense still have no new leaders as part of the coalition government formed in late 2010.
Sunnis again perceive Iranian hands—as well as vengeful hearts—in the agendas of the Shia-dominated Iraqi political parties. Kurds remain ambitious about expanding the Kurdistan region to include taking control of disputed lands to the south, such as the oil-rich city of Kirkuk and its environs. The Sadrists, part of Maliki's coalition and his fellow Shia, are a nefarious force in Iraqi politics. Two terrorist groups, KH and AH as they are often known, complement the troublemaking of al-Qaeda, which may still have one thousand fighters in the country (contrasted with less than one hundred currently in Afghanistan). Thankfully high oil prices mean that there is money for the central government to toss around, softening some of the anger that could otherwise boil up, but Iraq's civil war of a few years ago cannot yet be considered definitively over.
3) As a result, three thousand U.S. troops in Iraq is too few. We have learned in the opening days of September that the Obama administration is proposing a plan to keep some three thousand American forces in Iraq into 2012, if Baghdad agrees. To be fair, this is three thousand more troops than Iraq has assented to so far, and it would be better than nothing. Such a group could help oversee training, provide key liaisons to American intelligence, offer guidance on arms sales and, to a limited extent, help operate key military assets that Iraqi forces do not yet themselves possess, like drones.
However, what three thousand troops cannot do is have a meaningful presence on the ground. They cannot interpose themselves in tense spots. They cannot participate in confidence-building missions in places where Iraqi nerves may be on edge and various parties may need reassurance. They cannot go out on joint patrols and man joint checkpoints with Iraqi army and police forces as well as Kurdish peshmerga in those parts of northern Iraq where territories remain contested. They cannot, in short, help buy more time for Iraq—time for wounds to heal, trust to be built, individual relationships across different organizations and sectarian groups to be forged, and perhaps even a big outstanding political issue or two (like the future status of Kirkuk, which is supposed to be decided someday by referendum) to be resolved or at least partially defused.
Keeping ten to twenty thousand U.S. troops in Iraq could do all the above. If carried out for say three more years, it might cost us a total of $30–40 billion over that time. It is a small price to solidify the gains of what has already been a trillion dollar investment in one of the Middle East's most pivotal states. The Obama administration should reconsider—and hope that the Iraqi government will too.