Middle East Roundtable
Edition 24 Volume 6 - June 19, 2008
The future US role in Iraq
• Illusions of US power and Iraqi counter-realities - Arshin Adib-Moghaddam
Colluding with the US has become a liability for many governments.
• Iraqis' unlikely alliance - Greg Bruno
Iraqis are increasingly united in opposing the American presence.
• The determinants of a US drawdown - Michael Eisenstadt
There are cautionary lessons to be learned from elsewhere in the region as well.
• SOFA negotiations complicated by internal politics - Safa A. Hussein
Iraq's government realizes that its security forces are not yet able to stand alone against foreign and terrorist threats.
Illusions of US power and Iraqi counter- realities
It needs a particularly lethal dose of naivete to believe that the US, whether under Republican or Democratic leadership, would not try to maximize its material and immaterial profits in Iraq. The material goals pursued are quite obvious. Primarily they relate to Iraq's oil sector and its future utility for the US economy and to turning Iraq into a consumer market for American products. The immaterial profits are less straightforward and pertain to the political and strategic benefits of the Iraq war. The larger issue here is: How can Iraq be transformed into an agent of US national interests without upsetting the political process in the country?
Current deliberations about a treaty that would allow a) US troops to secure long-term access to military bases in Iraq, b) immunity from Iraqi law for US troops and contractors (remember the Blackwater scandal?) and c) the legal right to carry out arrests and conduct military activities without the prior consent of the Iraqi government, are a first step toward reaping a long term strategic benefit out of the invasion in 2003. The aim is to formally constrain Iraqi sovereignty before any future government can upset US interests in the country. As such, the treaty is a part of the strategic effort of the US and Israel to challenge and constrain the sovereignty of regional states when it suits their purposes.
The invasion of Iraq in 2003 without an explicit UN mandate, the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 2006, the Israeli air strike on Syrian nuclear installations, the assassination of political opponents on foreign territory (e.g., Hizballah's Imad Mughniyeh in Damascus), the ongoing Israeli colonization of "disputed" lands and the recent bombardment of Taliban bases in Pakistan during which over a dozen Pakistani soldiers were killed all exemplify that both the US and Israel have positioned themselves firmly above international law. Neither country wants to accept the Weberian premise that nation-states retain the monopoly of violence over their territory, and both want sovereignty to be suspended when it suits their strategic interest.
The results of this anarchic behavior are manifold. On the one hand, it has produced at least four "quasi states", in Lebanon, Palestine, Iraq and Afghanistan. The governments in these countries do not have enough power to secure their territory and are hence potentially, easily penetrable from the outside (both militarily and politically). On the other hand, it has also enabled the few remaining strong states to disregard the sovereignty principle in their foreign affairs, exemplified by Turkey's repeated military operations in northern Iraq and Iran's shelling of "Pejak" hideouts in Iraqi Kurdistan. Ironically, the United States and its allies have robbed themselves of the opportunity to accuse them of breaking international law.
Ultimately, the suspension of multilateral diplomacy and the demise of the United Nations as a viable actor in Western Asia (and maybe even globally) are a direct outcome of the US invasion of Iraq and the unilateral rhetoric of the Bush administration. Iran's oft- lamented "soft power", the fact that Qatar and not the UN, EU or US brokered the deal defusing the situation in Lebanon and that Turkey is acting as a conduit between Syria and Israel, all reflect this diplomatic disempowerment of both the United Nations and the United States and its allies.
Another outcome of the invasion of Iraq is that no state in the region can be overtly pro -American anymore without seriously endangering its own legitimacy. Colluding with the US has become a liability for many governments. Indeed, historically, regional states were perceived to be "strong" in terms of their ideological projection, when they stood up to the "West" and when they did not sacrifice their national sovereignty. Nasser's Egypt and the Islamic Republic of Iran were/are strong states because they were/are perceived to defend their independence. Indeed, are not current sympathies for Iran primarily engendered by the perception that the country is speaking "truth" to power? To put it in simple terms and to simultaneously answer this question in the affirmative: After the Iraq endeavor, challenging US foreign policies is the surest way to gain political ground, not only in Western Asia but also in Latin America and elsewhere in the Muslim and "third worlds" (and some would say even in Western Europe).
In light of this abbreviated analysis, the proposed treaty between the United States and Iraq can be identified as an effort to constrain Iraqi sovereignty before the country is governed by a strong (i.e. independent) state. US strategists must be aware that in the long term Iraqis will reflect upon the disasters engendered by the invasion, on Abu Ghraib, on Haditha, on Falluja and on the thousands and thousands of their countrymen who have filled the graveyards of Baghdad, Mosul, Karbala and Najaf. Out of this process of national reconstitution--that may be violent or peaceful--the emergence of a strong state that will insist on absolute independence is inevitable.
At that stage, Iraqis will tear apart any treaty that impinges on their national sovereignty, unless, of course, they have been habituated to accept a quasi-dependent existence in advance, which is exactly what this treaty is meant to ensure. Mind you, was it not Ayatollah Khomeini who warned the Shah that he was "selling out the country" when the latter pushed through a law that gave legal immunity to US citizens living in Iran? "Even if the Shah himself were to run over a dog belonging to an American", Khomeini said, "he would be persecuted. But if an American cook runs over the Shah, the head of state, no one will have the right to interfere with him."
Khomeini said this in 1964: 15 years before the revolution.- Published 19/6/2008 © bitterlemons-international.org
Arshin Adib-Moghaddam teaches comparative- and international politics at SOAS, University of London. His latest book, "Iran in World Politics: The Question of the Islamic Republic" has now been published by Columbia University Press and Hurst.
Iraqis' unlikely alliance
For nearly as long as the United States has been engaged in Iraq, Washington has worked to put its stamp on post-Saddam stability. Six months after the Ba'ath party's exit in 2003, Pentagon planners were lobbying for "virtually unfettered freedom" for US forces, according to papers obtained by the National Security Archive at George Washington University. Baghdad, meanwhile, has typically left military matters to the Americans and focused instead on budgets, ballots and political reconciliation. But as debate over a long-term security agreement heats up between the governments of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki and President George W. Bush, a unified voice of opposition is rising from the war's ashes.
Politically divided for years, Iraqis are increasingly united in opposing the American presence. A UN Security Council mandate authorizing foreign forces in Iraq expires at the end of the year, and Washington needs a replacement to extend its legal authority to remain. But opposition is growing as Sunni and Shi'ite lawmakers and some militia leaders unite against what Iraqis consider an infringement on their sovereignty. As the New York Times notes, the United States' approach may achieve that which recently seemed impossible: "unity among Iraq's disparate ethnic and political groups". Issues separating the sides include what role the US should play in defending Iraq, its efforts to confront terrorist groups and legal protections for US troops and contractors.
And yet it would be a stretch to call this a unified Iraqi political front; motivations for challenging the deals are as varied as the factions are diverse. Some analysts view Shi'ite parties as capitalizing on a growing nationalist backlash. Former Iraqi prime minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari, who says the deal would be "humiliating for the Iraqi people", has led a split of Maliki's Islamic Da'wa party to form his own coalition. Ali al-Adeeb, another Da'wa party leader, contends the proposed agreements would "impair Iraqi sovereignty" if US demands for basing requirements are met. Maliki himself has said talks are at a standstill. In the end, growing domestic pressure could force the prime minister to seek an extension of the UN mandate that authorizes the US military presence. Council on Foreign Relations' defense policy expert Stephen Biddle says that is one of a number of scenarios that could keep US troops in Iraq for the medium-term future. But such a compromise won't come without a fight: Shi'ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr has called for followers to boycott the negotiations, a move some speculate is aimed at bolstering his standing ahead of fall provincial elections.
Sunni calculations are more opaque. Kenneth Katzman, a specialist in Middle East affairs with the Congressional Research Service, says some Sunni factions favor a long-term security arrangement with Washington--in part because of assistance Sunni provinces received to fight al-Qaeda in Iraq. But Sunni members of the Iraqi parliament have fanned out across Washington to express frustration with the negotiations. During congressional testimony on June 4, Sunni political leader Khalaf al-Ulayyan, who heads the National Dialogue Council, called for "a timetable for the withdrawal, which allows time to rebuild the Iraqi forces". The Sunni leader and his Shi'ite colleague, Nadeem al-Jaberi, presented US lawmakers with a letter signed by a cross section of Iraq's parliamentarians all making the same claim. Adnan Pachachi, a senior Sunni member of parliament, meanwhile, disagreed with his colleagues' timetable demands during a trip to New York last week.
The agreements are also widely unpopular on the Iraqi street. Tufts University Middle East scholar Vali Nasr, who recently traveled to Iraq, says opposition is rooted in Iraqis' reading of colonial history. The agreements look "too much like Iraq of 1930s when the British, they claim, gave Iraq sovereignty and then took it away in a series of treaties". Patrick Seale, a British journalist and Middle East specialist, is more pointed. Writing in the pan-Arab Dar al-Hayat, Seale argues the deals amount to "nothing less than a neo- colonial strait-jacket". Public opinion polls have long suggested the Iraqi public opposes an open-ended American presence.
It remains far from certain whether Iraq's politicians will support or reject the security conditions sought by the United States. Ali Allawi, Iraq's former finance minister, writes in the Independent that the only remaining institution with the power to block the agreement--the Najaf religious establishment--thus far has not come out clearly against the deal. Iraqi political analysts say Shi'ite opposition may be little more than pandering in advance of provincial elections this fall. But CFR Senior Fellow for National Security Studies Max Boot says while approaching Iraqi elections are likely contributing to the logjam, recent Iraqi military successes may have convinced Maliki "he doesn't need the Americans after all."
For the United States, such a conclusion could dramatically alter future military operations in the country and the region. "I think [the US] did not realize just how controversial this was going to be," says Yale Law School Professor Oona Hathaway. "The last thing anyone should want is the troops being involved in an illegal war."- Published 19/6/2008 © bitterlemons-international.org
Greg Bruno is a staff writer for CFR.org, the website of the Council on Foreign Relations.
The determinants of a US drawdown
Though committed to dramatically different Iraq policies, Barack Obama and John McCain--the presumptive Democratic and Republican presidential nominees, respectively--will likely be compelled to tread generally similar paths when one or the other is sworn in as president in January 2009. Obama has promised to start withdrawing US forces immediately upon taking office at the rate of 1-2 brigades per month. At this pace, US ground forces could be out of Iraq within 12-15 months of inauguration day. McCain, by contrast, has predicted that by the end of his first term in 2013 most US military personnel will have been withdrawn from Iraq.
If, however, the security gains of the "surge" can be preserved, Obama would likely be subject to intense pressures by senior US generals and diplomats and key US allies to go slow with any prospective withdrawal and to leave a significant residual force in Iraq to secure the gains of the surge and deter renewed civil war.
Moreover, it may not be possible to withdraw forces at the rate of 1-2 brigades per month while simultaneously conducting stability operations, without abandoning large quantities of munitions and equipment (thereby stoking any renewed civil violence) or destroying them in place. For these reasons, the pragmatic Obama will likely have to revise some of his Iraq campaign promises prior to or after elections. Conversely, McCain could be forced, for political and military reasons, to draw down forces quicker and deeper than he might prefer.
As the surge ends and US forces in Iraq draw down, the central question becomes: will the presence of fewer US troops create new opportunities for those intent on attacking Iraqi civilians and coalition forces? Logic would seem to say yes; the statistics so far say no. Levels of violence have continued their dramatic downward march--though it may be too early to tell. There is, moreover, still much that could go wrong, with Kurds and Arabs in Kirkuk, Sadrists in Basra and Sadr City, and with the former insurgents of the Sunni Arab tribal awakening councils in Anbar province, Baghdad, and elsewhere.
A rapid US drawdown entails the risk of renewed civil war. Obama has stated that he might consider intervening in the event of "genocide". This could ensure that US forces remain engaged in Iraq should the drawdown coincide with renewed sectarian or ethnic violence. On the other hand, renewed civil war could lead Washington to conclude that Iraq is a hopeless case, and to accelerate the withdrawal of US forces--regardless of who is president.
A reduced US presence is likely to consist of several elements: special forces engaged in the hunt for Mahdi Army and/or al-Qaeda in Iraq terrorists, transition teams training and advising the Iraqi Security Forces and residual ground and air forces providing support and overwatch for the ISF and protecting key US military and Iraqi government facilities in Baghdad and elsewhere.
As it draws down, the US will likely increase its reliance on air power in conjunction with remaining US and Iraqi ground forces. In fact, the US is already moving in this direction, with a surge in air operations accompanying the surge in ground forces in 2007 -2008. Increased emphasis, therefore, needs to be put on enhancing Iraqi intelligence gathering capabilities, improving US-Iraqi air-ground coordination, and refining tactics and procedures for targeting insurgents, sectarian militias and warlords from the air. Still, there is ultimately no substitute for effective Iraqi ground forces--and this will be the decisive factor in determining the implications for Iraq of the US drawdown there.
Finally, it seems unlikely that the US and Iraq will sign status of forces (SOFA) or "strategic framework" agreements before the next US president takes office. These negotiations are shaping up to be a contentious affair, for historical as well as contemporary reasons. Under the monarchy (1921-1958), British influence in Iraq was formalized through two treaties: a 1922 treaty that provided for the appointment of British advisors to the Iraqi government and a 1930 treaty (signed shortly before independence) that allowed Britain to station troops and use air bases at Shu'aybah and Habbaniya, permitted British forces to transit Iraqi territory and made Iraq dependent on Britain for weapons and training.
Britain's enduring influence and the privileges awarded it under these treaties were a matter of controversy in Iraqi domestic politics and a perennial source of tension between the crown and nationalist politicians. An attempt in 1948 to extend the 1930 treaty another 25 years led to widespread riots, the resignation of the cabinet and the repudiation of the so-called Portsmouth Treaty by the new Iraqi government.
There are cautionary lessons to be learned from elsewhere in the region as well. A 1964 SOFA agreement between the United States and Iran that granted legal immunity to US personnel and (unusually) their dependents produced a harsh anti-American backlash. Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini condemned the agreement--acidly noting that the SOFA granted an American dog in Iran more rights than an Iranian citizen--and attacked the shah and the United States, leading to Khomeini's exile to Iraq. This was a key event in Khomeini's rise to prominence and power, and it is not hard to imagine some Iraqi politician using this issue to discredit establishment politicians and gain political advantage.
Indeed, the ongoing negotiations have already provoked demonstrations by Sadrists (who are demanding that any agreements be put to a referendum), the intervention of Ayatollah Ali Sistani (who reportedly has insisted that any agreements be ratified by parliamentary vote) and the ire of Iranian officials (who have agitated against these agreements). Likewise, concerns that the Bush administration intends to commit the US to a long-term security relationship with Iraq without legislative approval have raised suspicions in Congress. For this reason, both sides might eventually conclude that it is more expedient to obtain another UN resolution, ensuring that this is likely to be one of the first issues that the next administration will have to deal with upon taking office.- Published 19/6/2008 © bitterlemons-international.org
Michael Eisenstadt is a senior fellow and director of the Military and Security Studies Program at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
SOFA negotiations complicated by internal politics
Safa A. Hussein
In the next few months, Iraqi leaders may have to make tough historic decisions that will not only affect the future of Iraq for many years to come but may also determine their own political future as well. President George W. Bush and Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki have already agreed on a statement of principles for the negotiations, setting a July 31, 2008 target date to formalize US-Iraq economic, political and security relations. The two negotiating teams have been talking since March.
These negotiations present a huge challenge for the Iraqis. There are important differences between the positions of the two negotiating parties, particularly on security-related issues: the mission of the American troops, the authority to conduct military operations in Iraq, the detention of Iraqi citizens or residents, immunity for civilian security contractors and number of bases.
These differences are further complicated by the political environment in the United States, Iraq and the region. First, they are being negotiated in the shadow of the November 2008 US presidential election and despite high American public opposition to the war. Second, the agreements shape up as a major political battleground between America and Iran. And third, these agreements can exacerbate already existing divisions within Iraqi society.
Iraqis and Americans agree on the mission of the American forces in the long term, i.e., training, equipping and providing expertise to Iraqi forces. However, the United Nations mandate under which the US-led forces operate in Iraq will end by December 2008. Iraq's government realizes that its security forces are not yet able to stand alone against foreign and terrorist threats. Hence Iraqis want a commitment from the United States to assist them to defend Iraq when requested.
The Bush administration, on the other hand, believes that the current Congress is not willing to commit the US to a long-term security role in Iraq. The war in Iraq is a top concern of American voters in the 2008 presidential campaign season. The two presumptive nominees for the major political parties, Republican Senator John McCain and Democratic Senator Barack Obama, have greatly differing positions on the war. Further, the war involves enormous costs that, according to a February 2008 estimate, total $608.3 billion for FY2001-FY2008. In addition, there is the need for more troops in Afghanistan.
Hence the Bush administration seeks to reach non-binding agreements to avoid the need for congressional approval: a status of forces agreement, or SOFA, that covers issues like entry and exit rights and legal jurisdiction over US military personnel and a vaguely defined "strategic framework" dealing with the broader US-Iraqi security and political relationship. The next president will undoubtedly want to take a close look at these agreements so as to avoid losing the endgame in Iraq, especially after the progress achieved lately.
The authority to conduct military operations and detentions is another major Iraqi concern. The US position is that in the short term, while Iraq still needs the assistance of US troops to fight terrorism, Iraq must not tie the hands of those troops and must authorize them to conduct military operations and detentions. The Iraqi government views such an authorization as similar to the UN mandate that Iraq is working hard to end.
The other sensitive issue is civil and criminal jurisdiction. The US wants to have jurisdiction over offenses and crimes committed by its force members. Iraqis recognize the sensitivity of this issue, bearing in mind cultural differences and different penal codes regarding severe transgressions such as murder and sex crimes. They realize that matters like these have easily developed into political issues in other nations that have such agreements.
Ceding authorization to conduct military operations and carry out detentions as well as jurisdiction over crimes committed on Iraqi soil is considered by many Iraqis as a violation of sovereignty. The Iraqi government, still struggling toward political reconciliation, cannot afford to sign an agreement that is not approved by leading political actors.
These controversies make it very difficult to conclude the agreements by July or even by the end of this year, given presidential elections in the US and provincial elections in Iraq in the coming months. If an agreement is reached without addressing Iraqi concerns, it will have disastrous consequences for Iraq and these will necessarily affect US interests.
If there is a failure to compromise and accelerate the negotiations, Iraq has the option to ask for a six-month or yearlong extension of the UN mandate. This should either allow it to reach an acceptable agreement or give Iraq time to build up its forces and stand alone.- Published 19/6/2008 © bitterlemons-international.org
Safa A. Hussein is a former deputy member of the dissolved Iraqi Governing Council. Prior to joining the Transitional Government he served as a brigadier general in the Iraqi Air Force and worked in the military industry as director of a research and development center. Currently he works in the Iraqi National Security Council.
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