Reality Dictates Conditions-Based Iraq Timetable

By: Greg C. Reeson

An increasing number of reports coming out of Iraq indicate that the United States and the Maliki government are close to completing an agreement for the continued presence of U.S. forces. Reuters even reported August 25 that Prime Minister Maliki, in a speech to tribal sheiks in the Green Zone, has said a final agreement has been reached.

Whether an agreement has been finalized or not, the outlines of the proposed pact, together with the caveat statements made by Iraqi officials, that have emerged thus far appear to be an acceptance of President Bush’s demand for a conditions-based withdrawal of U.S. forces.

According to leaked details, the draft security agreement calls for U.S. combat troops to leave Iraqi cities and villages by June 30 of next year. It further calls for a departure of all U.S. forces from Iraq by the end of 2011. Sticking points that are in the fine tuning stages of negotiation include legal immunity for U.S. troops in Iraq and a few other lesser details. But putting talk of specific dates aside, the realities on the ground in Iraq will dictate that the final agreement be conditions-based, and not beholden to a rigid timetable. Here’s why.

First, to state the blatantly obvious, a conditions-based approach provides military commanders the flexibility to respond to long-term trends in the patterns of violence. Knowing they have the ability to reinforce, or reduce, troop levels as needed, military commanders can plan long-term strategies designed to ensure the security necessary for political progress. In short, it just makes good military sense.

Second, while Iraqi security forces continue to grow in both size and capability, they have a long way to go. Sectarian rivalries still exist within the ranks, and both equipment and competency shortfalls still need to be addressed. Even more importantly, Iraqi security forces lack strong officers and noncommissioned officers. Leaders take time to develop, and in the case of Iraq, where leadership positions under Saddam Hussein were awarded based on personal acquaintance and loyalty to Saddam, the United States literally started from scratch. And the Iraqi police, considered vital to the type of local, among-the-people interaction needed to combat an insurgency, are in even more need of assistance than the Iraqi Army. The training effort is ongoing, and progress is being made. To abandon the army and police forces before they are ready to provide security for the country is to doom Iraq to failed state status.

Third, elections scheduled for later this year, or more likely for early next year, will put recent political accommodations to the test. U.S. and Iraqi forces have prepared for elections in the past by increasing the number of available troops to help head off increased levels of violence that often accompany struggles for power in developing states. Both U.S. and Iraqi leaders need to have the means at their disposal, in other words the ability to deploy security forces, to meet the challenges that will surely arise as a result of the elections. A fixed withdrawal timeline makes this impossible.

Fourth, al Qaeda in Iraq is down, but not out. Changes at the tactical level that accompanied the surge of U.S. forces last year increased pressure on al Qaeda elements in Iraq and rooted them out of the vast majority of their strongholds. Many have been killed, and others have fled to Afghanistan to join the fight against the NATO coalition. But some hardcore elements remain in Iraq and their ability to conduct large-scale bombings that produce mass casualties still pose a grave threat to the Iraqi government. As the threat level continues to decline, military commanders can make assessments and recommendations on troop levels to the President. But a premature easing of the pressure being applied to al Qaeda in Iraq could give the group new life.

Finally, Muqtada al-Sadr’s intentions remain unclear. Sadr recently reorganized his Mahdi Army into a cultural wing to foster ties with the Iraqi people and an armed wing to continue the fight against U.S.-led forces. Sadr has been losing ground in Iraq in the wake of continuing offensives by U.S. and Iraqi forces, and he appears to be attempting to figure out a way to stay relevant. He is very popular among Iraq’s Shi’a, largely due to a social services network modeled after Hezbollah’s in Lebanon. But his continued absence from Iraq, ostensibly for religious studies in Iran, weakens his position and threatens his movement. The continued presence of U.S. forces, based on regular assessments of the security situation, allows the government of Iraq to continue to increase its capacity to deal with threats like al Sadr. As that capacity grows, the need for U.S. forces will diminish.

None of this is new, even for the most casual of Iraq observers. But the fact remains that there are valid reasons for determining U.S. troop levels based on conditions, and not on time. Iraqi leaders know this, and their caveats when talking about timetables demonstrate their understanding of the realities on the ground.

On August 22, The New York Times quoted Mohammad Hamoud, Iraq’s chief negotiator, as saying the draft security pact contained provisions that allowed the “timetable” to be adjusted based on the security situation. The Times also quoted another senior Iraqi official as saying the dates in the pact were “prospective,” and dependent on the ability of Iraqi forces to provide security.

In another article last week, The Los Angeles Times quoted Ali Dabbagh, an Iraqi government spokesman, as saying the dates in the proposed security agreement were “hypothetical,” and that ultimately Iraqi national security interests would dictate the pace of any U.S. withdrawal.

What’s happening right now is that Iraqi leaders are tailoring their public statements in response to domestic political pressures while privately expressing a realistic understanding of the challenges they still face. Even Prime Minister Maliki, who has of late been stepping up his timetable rhetoric, has generally included caveats in his statements that include phrases like “conditions permitting,” and “if conditions hold.”

There’s nothing wrong with articulating goals, or “time horizons,” or “aspirations.” The Iraqi people don’t want to be dependent on U.S. troops, and the United States needs to relieve some of the stress on its ground forces and free up assets for other global crises that will undoubtedly arise.

But officials in both Iraq and the United States recognize what is at stake. And that’s why a conditions-based approach to U.S. troop withdrawals will ultimately prevail, even if it contains adjustable dates.

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