As this nation prepares to elect a new president, there is a sense that America's involvement in Iraq has turned a corner. Much of the credit for the diminished bloodshed and the prospects for political progress has gone to the U.S. commander, Gen. David Petraeus, who leaves Iraq next month to take up expanded regional responsibilities as head of U.S. Central Command. In her new book, Tell Me How This Ends: General David Petraeus and the Search for a Way Out of Iraq, former U.S. News Senior Writer Linda Robinson draws on 11 reporting trips to Iraq and extensive interviews with Petraeus and his team to document the evolution of American actions in Iraq. She offers recommendations on how to move forward in Iraq.
By June 2008, Iraq was calmer than it had been since April 2004. The war was not over, but it clearly had reached a new stage. When Gen. David Petraeus took command a year and a half earlier, Iraq was on fire. The majority in the United States believed there was no way to avoid an ignominious defeat such as America had not suffered in a quarter century. Petraeus, with the help of many others, pulled Iraq back from the brink of civil war and created an opportunity for the next administration to bring the war to a soft landing.
Accomplishing that will not be easy, but what had seemed inconceivable to most onlookers in 2006 is now distinctly possible—if the 44th American president has the fortitude and wisdom to capitalize on what has been achieved. The new president has the great advantage of starting with a clean slate and no special relationships or past commitments. He can adopt a new policy that builds on the successes achieved in 2007 and 2008 and provides the critical missing ingredients that can be supplied only by presidential authority. The basic conceptual change needed is to shift the paradigm from war-making to peacemaking and to elevate achievement of the elusive political solution to be the policy's central goal.
The first decision the new president has to make is whether to pursue a political solution to Iraq's conflict—that is, to help Iraq construct a new foundation for the nation—or to settle for the status quo. He must decide whether the central goal of his Iraq policy is a multisectarian Iraq in which all the groups share political, economic, and military power. That outcome would be the most stable one for Iraq internally and for the region. The Bush administration was divided over how hard to push for this solution, and that division prevented effective policy formulation and implementation. The alternative is to accept the consolidation of an Islamist Shiite sectarian government that might become closely allied with Iran. That outcome is far less likely to produce stability inside Iraq or in the region. The United States loses nothing by attempting to achieve the first outcome, and the upside is enormous.
The issue must be framed starkly because the perception exists in some circles that the apparent defeat of Al Qaeda in Iraq means that the United States has finished its task in Iraq. The combat task may be largely finished, but to abandon the quest for a stable internal order will almost certainly lead to renewed civil war and regional spillover. The legislative package passed by the Iraqi parliament in February, particularly the compromise on provincial powers, was an important step forward. But the divisions remain deep, and the Iraqi factions are unlikely to resolve the most difficult issues on their own.
As a first step, the U.S. president should lay down a number of conditions. He should make it clear to Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's government that continued U.S. assistance will require the government to take a certain minimal set of actions to prevent Iraq from sliding back into civil war. The most important one is to speedily incorporate all of the vetted members of the Sons of Iraq, the largely Sunni neighborhood defense groups, into the Iraqi security forces or other jobs. This is the single best guarantee that the Sunni insurgency will not break out again. More than the previously agreed-upon 25 percent, probably at least half should be incorporated into the Iraqi police force. The reason is that Iraqis overwhelmingly prefer to have local residents in charge of neighborhood security, and the police force is still heavily Shiite.
The new president must also ensure that the U.S. military is not put in the position of supporting sectarian actions. U.S. commanders need to have a continuing role in determining valid targets for action by U.S. troops. The Maliki government has rightly taken the bold step of combating Moqtada al-Sadr's militia, which demonstrates Maliki's willingness to target not only Sunni but also Shiite armed groups. But it is essential to institutionalze procedures to prevent the political use of the armed forces and the politicization of its members.
The Iraqi government also must take urgent action and expend its own funds to facilitate the return of the 4 million Iraqis who have left the country or been displaced internally. Homes for squatters without legitimate leases must be found, rented, or built. Also, much more must be done to restore basic public services and repair infrastructure in areas lacking them, particularly Sunni areas. Iraq has ample resources to do so. Taking these actions will be among the most meaningful olive branches that can be offered to the Iraqi population.
Even before the new U.S. president's inauguration, his transition team must be prepared to signal his intentions and, if necessary, join the negotiation of the bilateral accord that is intended to replace the current United Nations mandate, if the accord has not yet been concluded. This accord implies a radical decrease in leverage for the United States, which has operated under broad U.N. authority, and a concomitant increase in Iraqi autonomy. If the accord has already been concluded, its terms must be reviewed to ensure that it does not commit the new administration in any way that will aid sectarian agendas or inhibit achievement of the above goals.
The fundamental reality is that Iraqis want and need U.S. assistance, at least for now. The Maliki government knows it is not strong enough to stand on its own, and it wants the United States to serve as a counterweight to Iran. But U.S. leverage is not unlimited and is diminishing as the threat from Iraq's most lethal enemy—Al Qaeda in Iraq—recedes and as the Iraqi security forces grow in size and competence. This means that U.S. leverage will have to be used for the right ends and not overplayed.
The second and equally urgent step the new U.S. administration must undertake as soon as it assumes office is to help Iraq prepare for national elections at the end of 2009 to elect a new parliament, which in turn will form a government to succeed Maliki's. The United States' main focus must be on the elections because they hold the key to the political solution. It is vital that these elections fully enfranchise the Iraqi electorate so that the resulting parliament will have the legitimacy and standing to resolve the main outstanding issues about the nature of the Iraqi state and how power and resources will be shared. It is necessary to ensure that the 4 million Iraqis who are displaced or abroad are able to vote because about half of them are Sunnis, a group currently underrepresented in the parliament. Further, the U.S. administration must strive to ensure that certain basic conditions are met in these elections. The formation of new parties and multisectarian or nonsectarian alliances should be encouraged or at least not impeded by party bosses. The United Nations and international monitors should be asked to support and observe the vote to increase confidence in the results and the legitimacy of the resulting government. To this end, U.S. troops must remain in sufficient numbers to ensure that the elections are conducted in a climate of peace and security.
While it is impossible to predict the outcome of the elections, it is highly likely that the Shiite vote will be fractured. The fissures within the Shiite electorate create the key opportunity for a variety of multisectarian and nonsectarian alliances. Many Shiites are disgusted with the incompetence, corruption, and sectarianism of the current government. The Shiite population is not a monolith, and it is not clear that a majority of the Shiites prefer an Islamist government.
The elections will open the door to the possibility of new alliances with new parties and constituencies that have entered the system in the provincial elections. That is not to say that it will be easy to form a new national government after the 2009 elections, but the first step is to achieve the most representative parliament possible. Any effort to tackle the bedrock issues with the current government is unlikely to produce a good outcome since the government has proved to be both weak and intransigent.
Those bedrock issues include, most important, the division of power between the central government, the provinces, and the regions—a matter that will most likely require constitutional revisions. According to a February 2008 poll, 67 percent of Iraqis want to have a strong central government, but the current Constitution provides for a weak central government and powerful regions. The other issue of enormous consequence is how Iraq's vast oil wealth will be developed and managed. Other key issues are the de-Baathification law, which may need further revision or at least oversight of its lagging implementation, and the troublesome issue of Kirkuk's status, which remains to be resolved in light of Kurdish claims.
The third step is to appoint an envoy to assist the new government in reaching agreement on these systemic issues and to discuss the future U.S. security assistance role. It is highly unlikely that the new Iraqi government will be able to navigate its way to lasting compromises without some type of outside mediation or facilitation. The U.S. president should appoint an envoy to offer assistance and to support other conflict resolution efforts, ranging from U.N. mediation to a U.S.-led Dayton process (as used in the Balkans conflict) to less intrusive "facilitation" by a Group of Friends.
The future of the U.S. military presence in Iraq should be negotiated with the new Iraqi government, based on the conditions that exist at the time, the needs of the Iraqi government, and its willingness to meet the basic conditions that the United States would seek in return for its ongoing support. Rather than decide unilaterally what is best for Iraq, the decision should be made with its new government—which is also the best way to leverage that assistance. Meanwhile, over the course of 2009, it should be possible to continue troop withdrawals at roughly the current pace to about half of the current level. Most of the remaining troops should be able to transition to largely noncombat advisory missions. The United States needs to continue the current cautious pace of withdrawal in order to avoid jeopardizing the gains made.
A residual troop presence of 50,000 to 60,000 troops may be needed for some years, depending on the security conditions in Iraq and the progress toward a political settlement. A long-term Balkans-type peacekeeping presence may be needed. Over time, it may be possible to recruit other allies or the United Nations to help with this task. To alleviate nationalist sensitivities and lower its profile, the United States should reduce its large headquarters and move out of the remaining palaces it occupies. Dispersion of troops is still required at the present time to provide a security blanket and to mentor and advise Iraqi troops. Iraq can benefit from having high-level advisers assigned to its top operational commands, as is currently the case. But there is no reason that the large U.S. command structure cannot be reduced.
The final piece of a new policy should be a robust and inclusive regional diplomatic initiative. No peacemaking and peacekeeping initiative inside Iraq can succeed without a simultaneous and equally concerted effort to establish a regional security framework. The immediate goals should be to induce support for the Iraqi government and to minimize armed intervention by Iran and other actors. The regional dialogue begun by the Bush administration should be continued and elevated with more frequent, higher-level meetings and an accelerated agenda. In addition to the focus on foreign fighters, border security, refugees, and resources, the regional process should seek concrete measures to reduce the chances of a wider Sunni-Shiite conflict and Kurdish-Turkish conflict. The strongest cards to limit Iranian intervention in Iraq are Iraqi nationalism and a continuing U.S. presence to balance the inevitable Iranian influence.
The ultimate goals of a regional pact should be to deter aggression on all sides, prevent the acquisition of de-stabilizing weapons, and craft a stable balance of power.
Adapted from Tell Me How This Ends: General David Petraeus and the Search for a Way Out of Iraq (Public Affairs). Copyright © 2008 by Linda Robinson.