Marc Lynch posts a memo he wrote for a working group he is involved with discussing the withdrawal of American troops from Iraq. He claims it is not necessarily comprehensive but is simply a “think piece.” The problem with the current U.S. policy in Iraq is policy was enacted without thinking it through. This is one (and hopefully there will be many others) attempt to think through a reversal of current policy. There are gaps – not the least of which pertains to Iraq’s neighbors, particularly Turkey and Iran – but this is worth the read.
What would be the effects on Iraqi domestic politics of an American announcement of a full withdrawal from Iraq over a 16-18 month period? For the purposes of this memo, I consider the precise timeline of the withdrawal less important than the firm, credible, public commitment to withdrawal.
First, any plausible withdrawal scenario must consider how the major actors will respond to a coming US departure and try to pre-empt most likely flashpoints. A US withdrawal should not seen exclusively as the removal of a barrier between otherwise unchanged Iraqi actors. A US withdrawal would change the identities, interests, expectations, and behavior of all actors. These transformative effects are a major reason why a firm and credible commitment to withdrawal on a clear timetable is necessary to achieve an acceptable outcome. Without such a commitment, Iraqi and regional actors alike will continue on their current course, while recent security gains will crumble as the political window closes. Without it, a Maliki-led or Maliki-like government will not be likely to deliver substantive political accommodation. Only faced with the loss of an open-ended U.S. commitment would its calculations would change. The same is true for every other actor in the Iraqi arena: Shia and Sunni, Green Zone and local, pro-US or insurgency.
There should be no underestimating of the risks involved in an American withdrawal. But at the same time, there should be no exaggerating them. The frequently-made suggestion that al-Qaeda could take over Iraq and its oil supplies is absurd, given Shia power and al-Qaeda's unpopularity even among Iraqi Sunnis. Descent back into sectarian bloodshed is more plausible, but by no means a certainty – and steps can be taken to reduce the risk. In last month's BBC survey carried, only 29% of Iraqis said that they believed that a US withdrawal would make Iraqi security worse. If a withdrawal is carried out responsibly, with appropriate steps taken in advance and with careful attention to the likely flashpoints, then there is no reason to assume a genocidal outcome.
The single most important question shaping the possibility of US withdrawal is whether it takes place in the context of a relatively strong, competent and effectively sovereign Iraqi state. US strategy should be oriented towards producing that core condition. The strategic failure of the "surge" has been that it has eroded the capacity and sovereignty of the Iraqi state by building up mutually hostile armed groups outside national institutions. The US must work to strengthen state institutions, and to force the integration of the Awakening Councils into the national army and police in advance of its withdrawal in order to avoid sectarian warfare. Despite the current American fashion in favor of decentralization, Iraqi support for a centralized Iraqi state remains strong: in last month's BBC survey, 66% of Iraqis preferred a unified Iraq with a strong central government, while only 23% favored the federation of strong regional governments.
A withdrawal will be more likely to produce positive effects if it is preceded by building Iraqi national institutions and mobilizing regional support. The most vulnerable remaining populations should be protected as long as possible. Intra-communal power struggles will likely be increasingly significant flashpoints with or without a US withdrawal, but will likely intensify in anticipation of a withdrawal which would likely significantly weaken the current ruling elite. I do not expect a withdrawal to proceed smoothly, given the legacy of five years of wrong paths, mismanagement, and sectarian violence. But it is also not impossible, especially if steps are taken now to improve the odds, and it is made more likely by a credible commitment to withdrawal.
Rather than the typical breakdown of Sunnis, Shia, and Kurds, in this brief I divide reactions between the Green Zone politicians and non-state actors.
Green Zone Politicians:
The current government, and more broadly the Green Zone political class, is one of the few Iraqi groupings which genuinely wants or needs a sustained American presence – as the guarantor of its political survival. At the same time, they have been one of the greatest obstacles to national reconciliation, and have proved largely resistant to American pressure. Since surviving a series of attempts to unseat his government, Maliki seems to feel politically secure and has spoken often about his belief that national reconciliation has already been achieved. Support for
relatively unconditional American backing is similarly strong among the Green Zone Kurdish leadership. Even the Green Zone Sunnis, who have often been the most critical of the US in public and have long since quit the Maliki government, need the Americans to maintain their political positions.
The Green Zone dominant parties share a common situation, of disproportionate power in the national government and an eroding position within their own constituencies. The Sunni parties feel threatened by the rise of the Anbar Salvation Council and the Awakenings, and by their failure to achieve substantial national reconciliation legislation to strengthen their political hand with their constituency. The united Shia list of the UIA has long-since fragmented, with the Sadrists and Fadhila and other Shia parties now largely on the outside. By most reports, ISCI has lost ground with Shia voters, and would likely lose in elections (provincial or national). ISCI's political leadership therefore depends on US support for its political weight, and despite its strong Iranian ties would likely be loathe to see the US leave. The Supreme Council's response to a withdrawal would be clearly shaped by its terms, and by the role – implicit or explicit – of Iran in the presumed post-US order. At the same time, in the context of an agreement (tacit or overt) with Iran, its role could be guaranteed. Without such a guarantee, however, the incentives would be strong to unleash the Badr Brigades to stir up trouble in hopes of preventing the US from following through on its plans to depart.
No Iraqi actor would scream more loudly or offer more dire warnings of impending doom than the current Green Zone elite – and, not coincidentally, these are the voices most often heard in Washington and by politicians on short visits to Baghdad. But their warnings should be understood at least in part as expressions of their own political self-interest. No Iraqi actor is more likely to quickly readjust its behavior and calculations should such a withdrawal be announced. With the US set to depart, the whole range of national reconciliation initiatives which are currently seen as at best luxuries and at worst mortal threats would suddenly become a much more intense matter of self-interest. The integration of the Sunni Awakenings, for instance, would move from a challenge to Shia hegemony over the security forces into the best possible way to pre-empt their military challenge. The credible commitment to withdrawal would give the US much-needed leverage over the Green Zone leadership.
Outside the Green Zone:
Sadr and other Shia actors: the renewal of Sadr's ceasefire this month was a highly significant move, one which greatly increases the chances of short-term calm. I am persuaded that Sadr has chosen to sit out the surge, consolidating control of his movement while purging it of disloyal or unreliable cadres and laying the ground for a long-term political role. An American withdrawal which allows the Sadrists a political role, without trying to crush it militarily, would encourage Sadr's evolution in a political direction while increasing his perceived costs for renewing sectarian warfare. Sadr had long demanded an American withdrawal, and would seem to have little incentive to disrupt it once the commitment is clearly made. It seems likely that Ali Sistani and the Hawza would favor the withdrawal and a return to real Iraqi sovereignty. While their influence seems to have declined in recent years, as power has devolved to the armed groups on the streets, they could still play an important role in calming the transitional situation. The Fadhila Party would also almost certainly support the withdrawal, and would continue to vie for power at the local level in its strongholds. As a bulwark against domination by either ISCI or JAM, Fadhila could be useful – but at the same time, the sheer proliferation of competing armed groups renders the situation highly volatile.
Anbar Salvation Council and the Sunni insurgency: While much of the Sunni insurgency is currently cooperating with the United States through the Awakening Councils, they have clearly and repeatedly stated their demand for a clear and binding commitment to American withdrawal. The political leadership of the insurgency factions has made such a commitment their entry price into the political arena. A commitment to withdrawal would help to lock in their cooperation– as with Sadr, they would have little incentive to disrupt the very thing they most want. The key variable here is whether or not the Awakenings have been integrated into the national army and police before the withdrawal commences. If they have not been, then their ever-growing focus on the "Iranian occupation" - which encompasses the current Maliki government and the major Shia militias - makes renewed sectarian bloodshed quite likely. The turbulence in Sunni politics detailed in my earlier memo to this group has only increased, with the Anbar Salvation Council threatening violence against the Islamic Party, and rampant signs of discontent among the Awakenings. A commitment to withdraw, combined with serious pressure on the Maliki government to integrate the Awakenings, would offer the best chance to make long-term gains out of the short-term tactical
Al-Qaeda in Iraq will likely try to claim victory if the US withdraws, of course, but they will also continue to take advantage of the US occupation in their propaganda if it does not. It is foolish to allow the enemy to dictate our strategy. Should the US withdraw, AQI would lose its major claim to Iraqi support, and would find not likely find more support among Sunnis – or, of course, Shia – than it does today.