‘Conditional Engagement’ Never Explains How It Would Achieve its Goals

Our guest bloggers are Brian Katulis, Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress Action Fund, and Peter Juul, a Research Associate at the Center.

(Parts one and two in this series)

In addition to failing define the conditions when U.S. troops would leave Iraq and misreading Iraqi views and calculations, the CNAS “conditional engagement” report on Iraq has a major gaping hole at the center of its argument:

3. Conditional engagement doesn’t describe how it would be implemented to achieve its stated ends, however vague those ends are.

As we previously noted, the report argues that continued U.S. military engagement in Iraq is a tempting enough carrot to get Iraqi leaders to resolve their political differences in order to keep it. But as we’ve also seen, many Iraqi political leaders don’t see it the same way, and even those who are more sympathetic to continued U.S. military assistance have to promise an end to the American military presence at some point.

Moreover, there is an illogic at the center of the conditional engagement argument — it implies that bad things might happen if U.S troops leave (genocide, terrorist safe havens, and regional war), so we should stay. But if Iraq’s leaders don’t move forward on accommodation, then we should leave anyways, despite those risks to U.S. national security. The report tries to have it both ways — it tries to say that U.S. troops cannot leave Iraq because of the risks of genocide, regional war, and terrorist safe havens, but if Iraqis don’t pass some laws, then maybe we should leave after all.

Conditional engagement is, in effect, a one-shot strategy dependent upon the Iraqi government not calling our bluff. Either we actually do disengage in the face of non-cooperation from the Iraqi government and lose, in the strategy’s own terms, any ability to affect the situation in Iraq, or we eventually reach the “boy-who-cried-wolf” threshold where our threats to leave are not taken credibly. It is not a strategy that can survive the multiple iterations necessary to resolve most or all of Iraq’s internal conflicts.

Making matters worse, the report does not make clear how, exactly, continued American engagement –- whether it is in the form of military trainers, support troops, or combat forces or economic support that is no longer needed (according to Iraq’s leaders) –- will cause or somehow help Iraqi political and social leaders resolve their outstanding conflicts. The strategy simply assumes that Iraqi leaders, especially those in the Green Zone, are desirous of continued U.S. support that they will be impelled to act by the hint that U.S. forces might leave in the absence of political accommodation. This is a highly questionable causative relationship upon which to make an entire strategy dependent.

Take, for example, the complex and volatile inter-ethnic dispute over the status of the oil-rich northern city of Kirkuk. There, Kurds, Arabs, and Turkomans are currently competing to see whether or not the city and Tamim province will join the Kurdish region, have its own special status, or remain closely tied to the national government.

Two brigades of the Iraqi army share security duties with a brigade of Kurdish peshmerga fighters. The CNAS strategy proposes the United States use its supposedly tempting carrot of continued assistance to pressure the Maliki government or its successor to make compromises over Kirkuk. It is difficult to see how a strategy premised on building up national-level security forces encourages compromise by the national government in this situation. In fact, doing so may make the government less amenable to compromise with the Kurdish regional authorities.

The conditional engagement strategy does not even begin to touch on other potential problems. What, for instance, should U.S. military advisers embedded with the Iraqi army do if fighting breaks out between Kurdish and national security forces over the Kirkuk issue?

The report argues that U.S. military support for Iraq’s security forces should be limited to “Iraqi security operations that are consistent with American interests.” It leaves the authority to determine which ISF operations meet this criterion with the White House and Multi-National Forces – Iraq. However, as the Iraqi government effort to take control of Basra this past spring illustrates, the Iraqi leadership may not always keep foreigners in the loop on its security plans. American forces were sucked into the Iraqi-designed and –led operation there with little notice.

Overall, the CNAS plan mirrors conservative proposals for Iraq in a significant way: it assumes the United States is and will remain the primary actor in Iraq. In assuming what the United States does is the only important factor in bringing Iraqi leaders to accommodation, it ignores the complexities of Iraqi politics in favor of a simple lever American leaders can pull to get the desired outcome. The evidence gathered during the U.S.-Iraqi negotiations on the status of forces and strategic framework agreements indicates that conditional engagement is ironically operating in the opposite way the CNAS report argues. It is American leaders in the Bush administration that are covetous of a long-term American military presence in Iraq, and Iraqi leaders are using that desire to condition the terms of the agreements.