Today is June 30, the day earmarked by the U.S.-Iraq security agreement for the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraqi cities. Despite entreaties from U.S. military commanders to permit exceptions (as allowed in the agreement), Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki chose instead to reject these requests and declare June 30 “National Sovereignty Day.” Some Iraqis took to the streets to celebrate, while Maliki delivered a nationally televised valedictory address. Iraqi security forces are now responsible for security in Iraq, and U.S. combat forces can now only operate with the assent of Iraqi authorities.
Iraq has already seen its first post-withdrawal violence, with at least 15 people reported killed by a car bomb in the contested northern city of Kirkuk. The specter of continued and possibly increased violence in the wake of the U.S. withdrawal from Iraq’s cities reflects the failure of U.S. strategy to resolve the fundamental intra-Iraqi tensions driving the conflict. While a combination of the surge, the Awakenings, and the marginalization of the Mahdi Army led to today’s low levels of violence, the lack of a political settlement has frozen existing conflicts -– particularly the Sunni-Shia sectarian war and the intra-Shia fight –- while allowing long-standing problems –- namely the Arab-Kurd divide –- to fester.
This reduction in violence has corresponded to an increase in political power for Iraqi Prime Minister Maliki. With relatively successful campaigns against the Mahdi Army in Basra and Baghdad and the successful negotiation of a withdrawal agreement from the United States, Maliki has gone from a weak and ineffectual leader to Iraq’s most powerful political figure and, in the view of some, nascent strongman. Maliki has staked his legitimacy on two pillars –- the ability to achieve security and reclaiming national sovereignty from the United States.
In the view of many American analysts, these two pillars are at odds –- Iraqi security forces aren’t ready to assume control, and will need U.S. forces to ‘advise’ them for some time beyond the December 31, 2011 withdrawal date. (Nevermind that U.S. advisers will need other Americans and “fortified compounds” to protect them from their advisees.) But these views underestimate the strong desire among Iraqis to reclaim their sovereignty, a desire Maliki has claimed as his own. His rhetoric about today’s withdrawal from the cities -– comparing it to the 1920 rebellion against British forces -– has given him little political leeway to renegotiate the security agreement, even if he wanted to. He’s even rejected the potential for U.S. forces to intervene: “We will not ask them to intervene in combat operations related to maintaining public order… It is finished.”
Maliki is clearly wagering that the Iraqi security forces are strong enough to keep other armed Iraqi groups from challenging the stability of his government. The lack of meaningful reconciliation with and integration of largely Sunni Arab Awakening groups and brinksmanship with the Kurds indicate Maliki thinks the forces under his control are capable enough to take on all domestic comers. Measured against the domestic political gains achieved via his strident pro-withdrawal stance, it’s difficult to imagine Maliki taking the enormous political hit by renegotiating or abrogating the security agreement to reap marginal gains in capability for forces he already thinks are ready.
If Maliki can’t manage Iraq’s multiple frozen conflicts and one or all explode following today’s withdrawal, the United States will be tempted to intervene unilaterally, in effect abrogating the security agreement. But doing so will undermine the Iraqi government more than it will help it secure stability, giving anti-government forces an easy rallying cry and voiding Maliki’s pro-withdrawal political rhetoric. If, during the time period between now and the full withdrawal of U.S. troops at the end of 2011, the Iraqi government requests our intervention under the terms of the security agreement, we should give it if circumstances warrant.
But doing so shouldn’t commit the United States to re-freezing Iraq’s internal conflicts. Those who advocate, in effect, sitting on these conflicts indefinitely need to justify the concomitant commitment of resources. The six-year diversion of scarce human, material, and financial resources to Iraq has had dire consequences for American strategic objectives in Afghanistan and Pakistan. What will the opportunity costs be for an large-scale American military commitment to Iraq beyond 2011?
However successful the surge and related developments were in reducing violence, they did not resolve the fundamental political questions that threaten to renew violence today. This failure is no excuse for prolonging large-scale U.S. military involvement in Iraq beyond the date agreed-upon by both the Iraqi and American governments.