The Future of Iraq

Some optimism and doubts.

Questions:
1. US president Barack Obama announced his plan for Iraq troops withdrawal. Do you think it is a good plan or is it too influenced by politics and by Obama’s election promises?

2. The biggest security challenge of this year will be the Iraqi election. Under what conditions do you think Obama would change his plan, either slowing the withdrawal or hastening it?

3. Two years ago the situation in Iraq was very bad. Today Obama can withdraw the troops without it looking for some people as an escape and the situation on the ground is much more favorable. What were the main reasons of such visible change?

4. At the end of 2011 the withdrawal should be completed. How do you see Iraqi future from this point up? Do you think Iraq could eventually change into some ‘beacon of freedom’ in the Middle East as President Bush envisioned? Or is it more likely that the danger of Iraq turning into failed state will still be considerably big and only some kind of authoritarian regime could prevent this outcome?

Answers:

Peter Mansoor, Chair in Military History The Ohio State University

1. The withdrawal plan recently announced by the Obama administration, while thee month slower then that called for his campaign, is still very ambitious. He has chosen to assume more risk with what is still a fairly rapid withdrawal of combat forces for Iraq, rather the space the departure of troops over three years as called for the status of forces agreement. It remains to be seen what effect this plan will have in the minds of the Iraqi people and Iraqi politicians, and how their strategic and political calculations will change as a result.

2. The withdrawal will be “back loaded,” that is, most of the forces currently in Iraq will remain there through the national election later this year to ensure security for this critical event. Should ethno-sectarian violence once again erupt this year, the Obama administration will have either adjust the timeline for troop withdrawals or concede failure in the Iraq war. Given the mood of the American people, it is unlikely that they will support another surge of forces or a long extension of U.S. forces in Iraq.

3. The shift of U.S. military strategy in Iraq in 2007 to protect the Iraqi people as the main goal of the campaign, coupled with the provision of more forces to make that strategy successful, was the major contributing factor in the dramatic improvement of the security situation in Iraq. Without the surge of forces and altered strategy, then the Sunnu tribal rebellion as al-Qaeda in Iraq had little chance to success, and likewise Prime Minister Maliki would not have felt emboldened to challenge Jaish Al-Mahdi in Basra, Sadr City, and Amarah in 2008.

4. The tides of history wash in strange directions, and the future of Iraq has not yet been written. I am cautiously optimistic that the Iraqis can resolve their political differences, at last enough to ensure the Iraqi state remains a viable entity. Whether Iraq becomes a “beacon of freedom” in the Middle East is up to Iraqi people to decide.

Stephen Biddle, Senior Fellow for Defense Policy, Council on Foreign Relations

1. I tend to prefer a slower drawdown than the one Obama announced, but his choice is defensible in light of the demands for troops in Afghanistan. The latter strikes me as a more important determinant of his decision than the politics of this, which aren’t nearly as salient as they were a year or two ago.

2. I doubt the pace of the withdrawal will change much regardless of the election outcome. Nor do I think the troops will be all that vulnerable during withdrawal. Iraq is mostly in a state of ceasefire today; this will not be a fighting withdrawal unless things go very badly wrong.

3. The chief reasons for the decline in Iraq’s violence over the course of 2007 was an interaction between the surge and the Sunni realignment that resulted from their defeat at the hands of Shiite militias in the sectarian warfare that followed the Samarra mosque bombing of February 2006 (if you’d like a more detailed account, I’d recommend my article “Patient Stabilized?” in The National Interest, which presents the argument more completely).

4. I hope Iraq will become gradually more stable and democratic, but there are many other possibilities, ranging from failed state status (too weak a central government) to authoritarian rule (too strong a central government).

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