‘Conditional Engagement’ Misreads Iraqi Consensus On U.S. Military Presence

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.

The first problem highlighted in the previous post is that “conditional engagement” fails to outline the precise conditions when U.S. troops would depart –- it’s an exit strategy without an exit. Conditional engagement is a policy proposal that is unsure of what it wants to achieve, besides vague terms like “accommodation” and “sustainable security” — hardly much of an improvement on the amorphous goals defined by conservatives as “victory” or “success.”

The second main shortcoming is that it misreads Iraq’s interests and calculations, which have evolved and changed rapidly in the past few months alone:

2. Conditional engagement assumes that the carrots of continued military, economic, and political support are more appetizing then they are.


Conditional engagement falls into the same trap that the Bush administration has on Iraq for the past five years: overestimating how much leverage the United States has in Iraq and underestimating broader Iraqi opposition to a continued U.S. military presence.

Certainly, there is a lot of posturing going on among Iraq’s leaders these days, and a number of Iraqis who publicly state that they oppose the U.S. presence actually understand that they would not be in power if not for the security umbrella U.S. forces have provided.

But the core of the conditional engagement argument is based upon a presupposition of Iraqi dependency on the United States– a dependency that has visibly weakened in just the last eighteen months, and on several fronts:

– Growing financial independence — Stuart Bowen, the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction, noted in a recent report that Iraqi government revenues for the 2008 fiscal year will likely reach $70 billion, which is double what was originally projected at the start of the year. Barham Salih, Iraq’s deputy prime minister in charge of reconstruction, reportedly said earlier this month that Iraq didn’t need any additional foreign funding for reconstruction.

– Increasing size and capacity of the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF). Military operations in Basra, Baghdad, Amara, and Diyala this year have all gone much better than previous operations. The overall size of the ISF has reportedly increased by 50 percent from 323,000 at the start of 2007 to a current size of approximately 500,000, according to U.S. government figures. Of course, everyone knows that the Iraqi military lacks key capacities — logistical support, airlift, and basic management structures — and this of course abstracts from a more complex reality posed by multiple independent militias, which are as much of a political problem and a reflection of internal power dynamics as it is a capacity challenge.

This increasing Iraqi capacity demonstrates that perhaps “conditional engagement” is more of a descriptive analysis of the current Bush administration policy, rather than a prescriptive analysis that offers a viable policy for a new administration. The problem with the current policy, as with conditional engagement, is that it never actually describes how to bridge Iraq’s internal divisions.


Moreover, the conditional engagement strategy ignores a fundamental political reality in Iraq — that Iraqi leaders are increasingly asserting their independence and sovereignty, and will likely continue to do so as the dates for Iraq’s provincial and national elections approach. Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has publicly stated his government’s desire to see American forces depart the country by 2010.

Public opinion polls of Iraqis suggest that Maliki understands his political base. As Steven Kull, director of the Program on International Policy Attitudes at the University of Maryland, noted in recent Congressional testimony, a number of opinion polls of the Iraqi public indicate they want a timetable for withdrawal. A March 2008 poll conducted by ABC, the BBC, and other international news agencies shows 73 percent of Iraqis “oppose the presence of coalition forces in Iraq.” Another March 2008 poll conducted for the British Channel 4 television station showed 70 percent of Iraqis “would like the Multi National Forces to leave Iraq.”

Naturally, Iraq’s elected representative tend to reflect the views of their constituents. Two Iraqi parliamentarians — one Sunni Arab and the other Shi’a Arab — who recently visited the United States to testify before Congress brought with them a letter stating that “the majority of Iraqi representatives strongly reject any military-security, economic, commercial, agricultural, investment or political agreement with the United States that is not linked to clear messages that obligate the occupying American military forces to fully withdraw from Iraq, in accordance with a declared timetable.” The signatories come from a variety of political parties and movements, including the main Sunni bloc, Tawafuq, the Shi’a Fadhila Party, and the secular Iraqi National List. A year earlier, in May 2007, a majority of Iraqi parliamentarians signed on to a draft bill mandating a timetable for American withdrawal.

Many of Iraq’s major political factions have also pushed for an American timetable for withdrawal. In addition to Maliki, the following political groups have stated demands for American withdrawal:

– Sadrists. Followers of Shi’a cleric Muqtada al-Sadr have staged repeated demonstrations denouncing the Status of Forces and Strategic Framework Agreements being negotiated between the Maliki government and the United States. Sadr withdrew his parliamentarians from Maliki’s coalition when the prime minister refused to set a timetable for withdrawal last year. His movement has consistently called for U.S. withdrawal from Iraq, and has praised Maliki for his discussion of a timetable.

– Awakenings. These Sunni Arab tribal and militia groups have played a huge role in reducing violence in Iraq. However, as the CNAS report illustrates, their continuing cooperation has been conditioned on the carrot of eventual U.S. withdrawal — not the carrot of a continuing American presence in Iraq.

– Tawafuq. The main Sunni Arab parliamentary bloc officially opposes the U.S. presence in Iraq, and would therefore not likely be swayed by the prospect of continued American military engagement. Its leader, Vice President Tariq al-Hashimi, has publicly called for a withdrawal timetable in the past. However, it is rumored that Tawafuq implicitly favors a U.S.-Iraq security arrangement to protect Sunni interests against the Shi’a-led central government.

– Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq. This Shi’a Islamist party with close ties to Tehran and a critical supporter of Maliki in parliament is widely believed to be the non-Kurdish party most amenable to a U.S. military presence in Iraq. However, after Maliki’s statement calling for a timetable, Vice President Adel Abdul Mahdi of ISCI stated that any agreement with the United States should “restrain or end the mission of [U.S.-led] multinational forces.”

Even if Maliki’s call for a withdrawal timetable is simply a means to gain leverage over the United States in the SOFA/SFA talks and protect him politically, it serves to illustrate that conditional engagement and other strategies to stay in Iraq do not have the support of the Iraqi people. If they did, Maliki would not have made a series of statements supporting a timetable for withdrawal. An American Iraq strategy that relies on the hidden intentions of Green Zone politicians while ignoring the expressed opinions of the Iraqi people is not a strategy that will either succeed or last very long.