Iraq in the Balance: Security and Democracy After the U.S. Troop Withdrawal

In light of the United States’ withdrawal of troops from Iraq, CIRS organized a panel discussion to analyze the political upheavals that have taken place in Iraq and to gauge the possible outcomes. The panel took place on October 19, 2010, at the Intercontinental Hotel in Doha and featured Anthony Cordesman, the Arleigh A. Burke Chair in Strategy at the Center for Strategic & International Studies, Laith Kubba, Director of Middle East & North Africa at the National Endowment for Democracy, and Rend Al-Rahim, Executive Director for The Iraq Foundation.

Anthony Cordesman began with an overview of the current security and military operations in Iraq. Addressing the U.S. withdrawal from Iraq, he said that “the U.S. now has four Advisory and Assist brigades in Iraq. These are full combat brigades” that provide military assistance to Iraqi forces. The U.S. continues to fly aircraft over Iraq to provide satellite intelligence and there are major airbases in neighboring Kuwait, military facilities in Qatar, fleet headquarters in Bahrain, as well as other naval capabilities in the area. “Withdrawal,” therefore, “is relative,” argued Cordesman. The United States will continue to play a role in Iraq, but “when the new Iraqi government comes to office, it has to define what the strategic partnership agreement means,” he said.

Currently, Iraq is importing and building up its military capabilities to aid in its counter- insurgency operations. However, Cordesman warned, “even if you delivered equipment tomorrow, Iraq does not have the facilities – the training and the background – to make that equipment effective. There is probably no worse way to acquire military equipment than to rush large amounts into a force that isn’t prepared.” To this effect, the United States is providing military advisory missions and is assisting with the purchase of military equipment and trainers. “This, in part, is driven by the fact that Iraq remains under a major budget crisis and will remain in that crisis for at least two to three years,” he said.

In terms of the ongoing threat of violence, Cordesman argued that, despite media portrayal, the levels of violence have decreased and have become concentrated in certain areas. He said that “the patterns of violence are not easily measurable,” but, in comparison to Afghanistan, there is greater stability. There remains a worrying level of outside interference, foreign support, and importing of illegal weapons for extremist purposes from Syria and Iran, which back Sunni and Shiite causes respectively.

In conclusion, Cordesman argued that, in future, “you cannot develop effective police without an effective judicial system and jails, and you cannot develop either one without an effective government presence in the field.” The United States will continue to support Iraq and give aid depending on how much Iraq needs or allows. Cordesman said that he has often heard Iran being described as the hegemon of the Gulf, but, to put things into perspective, “in the last five years, ignoring Iraq, the Gulf Cooperation Council countries have spent more than ten times as much on defense as Iran, and more than seventeen times as much on arms imports.”

Rend Al-Rahim gave the second speech in which she outlined the current precarious position in which Iraq finds itself. She argued that “we are, in fact, in a situation where Iraq is verging on tipping in one direction or another.” Indeed, “the next four years are going to indicate what Iraq is likely to be as a state.”

During her talk, Al-Rahim focused on three essential questions. The first concerns whether Iraq will remain one country, or whether it will become divided along ethnic and religious lines. The second question wonders whether democracy will become the prevailing governing ideology, or whether Iraq will revert to its historical system of autocratic and authoritarian rule. The third and final question asks whether Iraq will become a functional state that is able to maintain security for its people and deter external threats and pressures.

The answers to these questions, Al-Rahim said, can be defined by the problems that arise from constitutional and political challenges in the country. There are a variety of problems associated with Iraq’s constitution. She noted that “the constitution was written in a period of about three months, but, most importantly, it was written without the participation of the Sunni community who boycotted the process and refused to participate in the negotiations that produced the constitution. They were eventually persuaded to ratify the constitution.” Al-Rahim noted that “because of the haste with which the constitution was written, it is riddled with internal contradictions, ambiguities, lack of clarity, and is essentially, an unbalanced document that does not have a fully-fleshed conception of what the state is and how the state is going to function.” Indeed, “if the Iraqi federal government was to follow the constitution today, literally and strictly […] it would not be able to provide internal security – the article about security specifically says the federal government is in charge of Iraq’s security against external threats; it does not talk about internal threats.” Al-Rahim argued, “to the extent to which the Iraqi government functions, it is functioning extra constitutionally.”

There are two major areas – internal and external – where there are serious political challenges, Al-Rahim argued. The first of these is “the reductionist approach to Iraqi society that began in 2003 that was adopted by the U.S. administration” and this is the view of Iraq as being divided into Shiite, Sunni, and Kurdish factions that have their own conflicting agendas. She argued that “this is neither an accurate, nor a healthy description of Iraqi society.” The second problem is the unease with which Iraq is identified within the region and how it relates to neighboring countries. Al-Rahim questioned whether Iraq can actually identify itself as an Arab country given the sizeable Kurdish and Shiite populations that do not consider themselves Arabs.

Finally, Al-Rahim argued that because of these constitutional and political variables, “there is still no common agreement among the political elite about what Iraq is or indeed what Iraq should be.”

The third and final speaker was Laith Kubba whose talk centered on the question “what impact will the U.S. withdrawal have on Iraq’s role in the region?” He also questioned whether the country would be able to stabilize after the withdrawal, especially with the prospect of civil war looming on the horizon.

For the eighty years before the invasion, Kubba argued, Iraq was a balancing force in the region and “maintained a strong position among the Arab countries; it was quite influential and independent.” However, “with the invasion in ’03 that order inside Iraq ended,” he said, and it has become a weak state that no longer poses a threat to its neighbors, or to the international community.

Kubba outlined the current trends that are driving the Iraqi political scene, both internally and externally. He argued that for a combination of economic and political reasons, the U.S. significantly reduced its troops. “Back in ’08, as Obama was elected, there was the dawn of a new policy on Iraq.” The focus has now shifted back onto the Iraqi government as “the perception of a diminishing U.S. presence throws the ball back to Iraqi players.”

Externally, a weakened Iraq will change the nature of the power balance in the region. “When the U.S. invaded Iraq, it more or less warned the neighbors not to interfere in Iraq; Saudi Arabia was kept in check; Syria was kept at bay; Turkey, for reasons of its own, decided not to cooperate. So, effectively, Iran was in a position to do what it wanted because it had no working understanding, or working relationship with the U.S. and it has built a very complex presence inside Iraq” that has made it extremely influential on a number of fronts, both culturally and militarily. Importantly, “As its neighbors look at Iraq, can they be indifferent to what sort of order is emerging in Iraq? The answer for Iran, Turkey, Syria, and Saudi Arabia is a definite ‘no.’” What happens in Iraq will have a direct influence and impact on their security and interests. Until Iraq becomes autonomous and independent, neighbors will have opportunities to influence the country.

Looking to the future of Iraq, Kubba said that there are two competing visions. The first perceives of Iraq as a modern state that has a clear citizen-state relationship irrespective of communal loyalties. He argued that despite the upheaval caused by the U.S. invasion, “the most positive outcome is that Iraq has set itself up with an electoral system” and there is now tremendous pressure on the government to take the public’s demands into account – something that Iraq has not experienced in a long time. The second vision sees Iraq as a weak and fractured state that has strong ethnically divided communal centers or provinces. The various factions will be encouraged to overlook political agendas in favor of sectarian ones. Finally, Kubba argued that “the new order is yet to materialize; we are still in a transitional phase in Iraq and I think it will take a while before the new order is shaped.”
 

Article by Suzi Mirgani, CIRS Publications Coordinator