Thursday, July 14, 2011

Will US Troops Remain in Iraq?

As the deadline nears for the Iraqi government to decide if a contingent of American troops will be allowed to remain in Iraq after the end of this year, the Obama administration has expressed mounting frustration that a decision has yet to be made. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta’s blunt language during his recent visit to Baghdad, which criticized Prime Minister al-Maliki’s indecision, reflected that frustration. However, no amount of American criticism or behind the scenes pressure can, by itself, alter the basic political dynamics that constrain Iraqi decision-making regarding US troops remaining in Iraq. Rather the al-Maliki government is going to have to make some difficult choices and make them soon.

One constraint is the profound sense of nationalism that characterizes the Iraqi people. At one level, the US should welcome this expression of nationalism because it underlines a sense of national unity that is belied by the usual focus in the West on Iraq as a nation-state rent by sectarian and ethnic divisions.

While the Kurds are much more amenable to US troops remaining in Iraq, neither Iraqi president Jalal Talabani nor Kurdish Regional Government president Masoud Barzani has been making a public case for retaining American troops after December 31, 2011. If US troop are to remain in Iraq, there will need to be justification by the Iraqi government as to how those troops serve its national interests.

A second constraint is more problematic from the US perspective. This reflects the problem created by the pressure being exerted on al-Maliki by his erstwhile ally, Muqtada al-Sadr, the leader of the Sadrist Trend and former Mahdi Army (now partially reincarnated as the Army of the Promised Day - Jaysh al-Yawn al-Maw’ud).

The Sadrist Trend, which is represented in the Iraqi parliament by the “Liberals” (al-ahrar) reflects a fundamental problem of Iraqi society, namely the continued deterioration of the quality of life for large segments of the country’s poor and marginal social strata. The agrarian sector’s decline means that agriculture cannot support the rural population, thus producing a steady stream of migrants to urban areas. These migrants tend to be young and uneducated and highly susceptible to recruitment to militias and criminal organizations.

Unfortunately, the Iraqi government, both under al-Maliki and former prime ministers, has done little to curb extensive state corruption. The lack of any serious effort to bring corruption under control has created an even more pernicious dynamic. It sends a message to cabinet minsters that they need not make an effort to improve government services. Corruption not only wastes huge amounts of public funds but produces a political culture in which holding a government office is viewed as a source of patronage, rather than an as institution whose raison d’ĂȘtre is to provide a public service. Corruption is also linked to nepotism because relatives and friends are given choice positions within government ministries.

These conditions result in poor and inadequate services and widespread cynicism among the populace at large. They create the “perfect storm” for populist and proto-authoritarian organizations such as the Sadrists who argue that they are the true embodiment of the common will, because only they take the public interest seriously.

In this respect, the Sadrists parallel movements in other parts of the Middle East where the government has abdicated its responsibilities towards its citizenry. Hizballah in Lebanon demonstrates many similarities with the Sadrist movement given the Lebanese government’s historical neglect of the Shiite dominated southern region of the country. Likewise, the PKK in south eastern Turkey and Hamas in the Gaza Strip would not have acquired popular support had the Turkish government and the PLO respectively been more attentive to the local populace’s needs.

A third constraint on American forces remaining in Iraq is the influence of negative “neighborhood effects.” As I have mentioned in previous postings, none of Iraq’s neighbors with the exception of Turkey, wants to see a democratic, pluralistic and tolerant political system develop in Iraq.

June 2011 was the worst month for US troop casualties in 2 years and almost all the deaths can be attributed to Shiite militias in the south who have been supplied with sophisticated arms by the Iranians. Clearly, Iran continues to put pressure on the US so as to hamper its ability to achieve its goals in Iraq, particularly through strengthening Shiite militias and encouraging them to attack US forces. By increasing tensions between American forces and these militias, focus continues to be placed on the presence of US forces in Iraq and the December 31 deadline for them to leave. These developments place more constraints on al-Maliki’s behavior.

According to the al-Hayat (July 5), the Iranians have let the US know through back channels that they would be willing to agree to some US troops remaining in Iraq if the US agrees not to pressure Hizballah concerning the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq al-Hariri, not to topple Bashar al-Asad’s regime in Syria, and to pull back in its efforts to punish Iran for continuing to develop its nuclear energy program which the US sees as intended to produce nuclear weapons.

The US will not accept such conditions and agree to strike such a bargain with Iran. Therefore, we can expect Iran to continue encouraging Shiite militias to attack US forces and to instruct the Sadrist movement to insist that all US forces withdraw from Iraq. The al-Maliki government’s failure to suppress these militias and to arrest their leaders has created great resentment among US forces in Iraq and can only serve to drive a wedge between the US and Iraq.

There is a solution to the problems just outlined but it would require al-Maliki to change course politically. Adopting a statesman-like approach in which he explained to the Iraqi public why some US forces must remain in Iraq after December 31, al-Maliki would detail the need for these forces to complete the training of the Iraqi army, assist Iraq in building an air force that can monitor and control the country’s borders, and help Iraq’s national police force acquire the skills it needs to insure control of terrorist and criminal elements.

In this process, al-Maliki can expect the withdrawal of Sadrist members of parliament from his government in protest of his decision to allow some US forces to remain in Iraq. The resulting political deficit could be filled by having al-Maliki reach out to his arch-rival Ayad Allawi. Al-Maliki would need to create what he has been calling for ever since the March 2010 elections, namely a “national unity government.”

With the support of the Kurds, and Allawi, al-Maliki’s government would not fall. However, the Iraqi Prime Minister would need to make concessions to Allawi. This would include allowing Allawi to have an important say in the selection of the ministers of defense and interior, positions which still have not been filled since the March 2010 elections.

It would also entail giving meaningful powers to the position of Director of the new National Council for Strategic Policies which the US proposed be created after the March 2010 elections to break the logjam over who would become prime minister. The idea was that Allawi, while unable to become prime minister, would still receive a meaningful political position in the new Iraqi government. By heading the new National Council for Strategic Policies, Allawi would be able to temper the prime minister’s power by having control over defense and national security issues.

Will al-Maliki see the necessity of forcing the issue of US troops remaining in Iraq with Muqtada al-Sadr, other Shiite militias and their patron Iran? Or will he give in to current political pressures and cede political influence to theses groups that pose a major threat to Iraq’s democratic development and its ability to maintain Iraq’s autonomy from Iran?

What Iraq requires is bold leadership. Prime Minister al-Maliki needs to face down the Sadrists and nascent Shiite militias, make clear to Iran that Iraq will no longer tolerate meddling in its internal affairs, clean up the political mess in Baghdad by coming to terms with Ayad Allawi and his al-‘Iraqiya List, and then use this political foundation to attack the pressing social problems facing Iraq which are security, job creation and economic development, and the provision of government services.

Such bold action would allow Iraq to more forward. It would place the issue of US troops remaining in Iraq in its proper context, namely helping Iraq achieve its national agenda.