Riding the Tiger
By Colin Kahl
There are two NPR stories worth listening to on declining U.S. influence in Iraq and the challenges that presents for achieving "sustainable stability" -- that is, a degree of stability that can be maintained as U.S. forces draw down.
As our presence diminishes, Iraqi sovereignty concerns intensify, a new bilateral agreement (if reached) puts constraints on what we can do and how much coordination we need, Iraqi oil wealth grows, and the capabilities of the Iraqi security forces (ISF) increase, our ability to shape events goes down.
Part of this is also psychological -- especially on the part of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and his closest advisers. Their confidence in the capabilities of the Iraqi security forces definitely exceeds the ability of those forces to conduct operations independently of U.S. support -- making Maliki and his inner circle think they need us less than they do.
This is part of a complex set of motivations Maliki has at the moment. On the one hand, he feels militarily ascendant as a consequence of successful operations in Basra, Sadr City, Mosul, Amara, and now Diyala. He has also consolidated control over elements of the Iraqi Security Forces (in part, probably, to "coup proof" his government), including seizing control over the Iraqi special operations forces, Emergency Response Units, and (to some extent) the Iraqi Army (via the various "Operations Centers" in Baghdad, Basra, Ninevah, Diyala, etc.). On the other hand, while he is militarily (over)confident, he will continue to be politically vulnerable. His Dawa party is fractured and has a small base; political competition and tensions with its political ally the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq are increasing; Moqtada al-Sadr's party is no longer part of the prime minister's coalition; and ongoing Arab-Kurd tensions mean the Kurds are no longer reliable coalition partners.
So, with provincial and national elections on the horizon at some point over the next year, what to do if you are Maliki?
First, roll-up all your adversaries now while you still can. Maliki has followed this course by going after Sadr's Mahdi Army militia and party,and he is now cracking down and playing divide-and-rule with the Sunni Awakening/Sons of Iraq militias. And if things go badly? Well, the United States is still there for a while to bail him out.
Second, Maliki is refashioning his "brand." To stay in power, he is positioning himself as the guy who stabilized Iraq (a "strongman" of sorts) and a staunch nationalist who kicked the United States out by demanding a timeline in strategic framework talks.
But our diminishing leverage is not the same as no leverage. Even Maliki realizes he needs the United States to stay for a few years longer (at least until 2011) -- and most other Iraqi political and military elites think they need us for longer than that. Thus our influence and leverage, especially over the Iraqi Security Forces, can still be effective. We can push for things like the integration and employment of the Sunni Awakening militias and fair elections -- but only if the next U.S. president cancels Iraq's blank check and chooses to use this leverage early in his next term.
But if the next American president waits too long, our diminishing leverage will likely disappear altogether, leaving us with two strategic options: resign ourselves to "ride the tiger" -- that is, simply accept what the Iraqi government does, and at most, mitigate or help buffer the consequences -- or jump off the tiger altogether.
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