Today is a pivotal day for the United States in Iraq. Today U.S. armed forces take the first step toward fulfilling President Barack Obama’s commitment to redeploy U.S. troops from Iraq by fully withdrawing our combat forces from Iraqi cities—more than six years after its invasion and ouster of Saddam Hussein’s regime.
The date itself is largely symbolic since the overall number of U.S. troops in Iraq will probably remain well over 100,000 through the end of the year, when Iraq holds its next national elections. And some U.S. troops will remain in urban areas as advisors and trainers. But today’s withdrawal of most U.S. troops from Iraq’s urban centers is just the first step in what should be a complete redeployment of U.S. troops in the coming months.
If the Obama administration continues to fulfill the country’s commitment to draw down the number of troops, then the United States stands a good chance of making a historic strategic shift in its overall approach to the Middle East. By signaling to the region that the U. S. military is not staying in Iraq for an open-ended period of time, the Obama administration is sending a message that Iraq and countries in the region need to do more to take care of their own affairs.
As the U.S. military presence decreases, however, the Obama administration should advance internal political reconciliation among competing Iraqi political factions, help the Iraqis with reconstruction, and help guide Iraq’s reintegration with the rest of the Middle East. This will require putting more U.S. diplomats and development experts into action as U.S. combat troops are redeployed toward other national security priorities. Maintaining security and stability in Iraq depends on it.
Those efforts can all begin in earnest today. For Iraqis, today is another step toward reestablishing the sovereignty of their country and taking back control of their affairs. For far too long the desire among the Iraqi people to have greater control of their own lives was ignored by their leaders. Handing back more control means that Iraqis have greater responsibilities. Much work remains undone in reconciling the differences between Iraq’s competing political factions, reconstructing the country, and reintegrating with its neighbors.
For Americans, meeting the commitment to withdraw from Iraqi cities marks an important step in rebalancing the country’s overall national security priorities. For more than six years U.S. national security was overleveraged in Iraq to the determent of other pressing national security priorities such as Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran, and North Korea.
If the Obama administration sticks to the program agreed to by the Bush administration in its waning days and the Iraqi government led by Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki for a clear timeline with a date certain for troop withdrawals—a move resisted by conservatives for years—then it will send the right message to the Iraqi people that the United States honors its word. It will also help President Obama continue the process of resetting overall U.S. national security policy priorities.
The continued redeployment of U.S. troops according to the plan outlined in the status of forces of agreement approved last December by Iraq’s government, however, doesn’t mean that the job is done. The Obama administration remains committed to “an Iraq that is sovereign, stable, and self-reliant.” And Iraq’s leaders must recognize that their country needs assistance from the outside to stand on its own—despite recent made-for-Al-Jazeera political bluster from Prime Minister Maliki about Iraq’s “great victory” in driving out foreign occupiers.
The Obama administration needs to step up its efforts on three key issues: fostering more internal political reconciliation among Iraq’s competing political factions, building upon Iraq’s existing institutions, and supporting Iraq’s political and diplomatic reintegration into the broader Middle East. None of this will be easy. All of it will be crucial.
A diplomatic surge to address Iraq’s divisions over power sharing
The 2007-2008 “surge” is simplistic because it ignores a core reality—one outlined in a paper from the Center last year—that Iraqis remain bitterly divided over key power-sharing questions. One particular flashpoint the United States should use its diplomatic and political leverage on is northern Iraq, where it can encourage political reconciliation between Arabs and Kurds.
The disputed northern provinces of Nineveh, particularly the cities of Mosul and Kirkuk, have experienced a strong upsurge in violence in recent months. Much of the violence is driven by power disputes between Arabs and Kurds over who controls the money, oil resources, territory, and guns.
U.S. diplomats should engage Arab and Kurdish leaders in the disputed northern areas more intensively on these issues. For the past several years, the United Nations Assistance Mission for Iraq has led a process aimed at collecting information and offering a way forward to settle the unresolved questions in Nineveh province, Mosul and Kirkuk. But the U.N. effort lacks the leverage to shape the calculations of Iraq’s different factions. U.S. leaders can step up efforts to come up with a process that helps manage and resolve the conflicts of northern Iraq.
Increased efforts to help Iraqis build the infrastructure of democratic governance
The United States spent tens of billions of dollars arming and training Iraq’s security forces over the past six years but not enough has been done to build the civilian infrastructure needed to sustain and provide democratic oversight to those security forces. The United States should expand its efforts to train the Iraqi civil service and develop the capacity of these individuals to manage large bureaucracies in order to fight corruption and increase the capacity of Iraq to execute its budget.
Doing this will require the United States to advise and train Iraqis on all levels of governance—in national ministries, in regional governments, and in the newly elected local government bodies. The best way for the United States to provide this assistance is by working through and in coordination with other countries and international organizations such as the United Nations.
Stepped up regional diplomacy to support Iraq’s reintegration with the region
Iraq’s neighbors can stabilize Iraq by helping secure its borders, helping its refugees, and contributing to its reconstruction efforts. In the past, President Obama and other key members of his cabinet talked about the need for a regional contact group and diplomatic effort to get Iraq the support it needs from its neighbors. That was a good idea when he was running for office and it remains a good idea now.
As Iraq continues to stand on its own and the United States continues to decrease its military presence inside the country, the Obama administration needs to follow a strategic plan that is connected to broader security dynamics in the region. One key goal should be to help reintegrate Iraq into regional security system that aims to reduce tensions among all of the countries involved, including Iran, Turkey, Syria, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and other Gulf Cooperation Council countries.
Today’s withdrawal of U.S. combat troops from Iraqi cities is an important first step in ending America’s combat mission in Iraq and in keeping America’s promises to Iraq. With the redeployment of combat troops, it is to U.S. diplomats and development experts that the task of building an Iraq that is sovereign, stable, and self-reliant falls.
Brian Katulis is a Senior Fellow and Emily Hogin is an intern with the National Security Team at American Progress.