Is The Prospect Of Withdrawal Responsible For The Modest Security Gains In Iraq?

Yesterday, the National Intelligence Estimate reported “measurable but uneven improvements” in the security situation in Iraq. While the White House has rushed to suggest that the modest gains were the result of escalation, the improvement can more plausibly be the product of Iraqi expectations of a U.S. withdrawal. (Some gains have also resulted because large numbers of Iraqis have fled their homes and ethnic cleansing has taken place.)

Much of the touted security gains have come in the Anbar province, a region that was not the target of Bush’s escalation. In fact, progress in Anbar pre-dated the surge and occurred while troop numbers were being reduced in the region. The NIE states that local security arrangements such as those in Anbar province are being formed in response to imminent U.S. withdrawal, and that these “bottom up” security initiatives “represent the best prospect for improved security over the next six to 12 months”:

“[F]earing a Coalition withdrawal, some tribal elements and Sunni groups probably will continue to seek accommodation with the Coalition to strengthen themselves for a post- Coalition security environment” […]  “The IC assesses that the emergence of ‘bottom-up’ security initiatives, principally among Sunni Arabs and focused on combating AQI, represent the best prospect for improved security over the next six to 12 months, but we judge these initiatives will only translate into widespread political accommodation and enduring stability if the Iraqi Government accepts and supports them.”

In April, Defense Secretary Robert Gates acknowledged, “The debate in Congress…has been helpful in demonstrating to the Iraqis that American patience is limited.” It appears that the Iraqi expectation of a U.S. troop reduction has actually produced tangible progress.


The New York Times reported that Sunnis’ perception of an impending withdrawal changed their attitudes. “Many Sunnis, for their part, are less inclined to see the soldiers as occupiers now that it is clear that American troop reductions are all but inevitable, and they are more concerned with strengthening their ability to fend off threats from Sunni jihadists and Shiite militias,” the Times wrote in July. In fact, leading Sunnis continue to demand a timetable for withdrawal.

Gareth Porter, writing for Inter Press Service, reported recently, “The apparent success of Petraeus’s shift from relying on U.S. military force to relying on Sunni troops to take care of al Qaeda could be used as an argument against continuation of the U.S. military presence in Anbar.” He added:

Recognition that there is a far more effective alternative to U.S. military operations to reduce al Qaeda’s influence would be a major blow to George W. Bush’s argument against a timetable for withdrawal of U.S. troops, which has relied increasingly on the threat of an al Qaeda haven in Iraq.