National Security Network

Iraq’s Political Challenges Can’t Be Solved By American Troops

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Report 27 October 2009

Iraq Iraq Dick Cheney George Bush Suicide Bombings


The tragic suicide bombings in Baghdad this weekend demonstrate that Iraq’s underlying political tensions, which went unresolved by President Bush’s surge strategy, must be addressed in order to achieve lasting stability.  Many conservatives were quick to declare mission accomplished again following the lull in violence after the “surge.” However, the grievances and disputes that pushed Iraq into civil war and led to massive ethnic cleansing have yet to be comprehensively addressed.  While overall violence has decreased since the fall of 2007, the underlying disagreements between Iraq’s three main groups – Shia, Sunni, and Kurds – have persisted. The political structure of the Iraqi state, the distribution of oil revenue, and the status of disputed territories in the north, are all issues the surge was supposed to address but did not. Though the swift creation of an election law agreement following the bombings is a hopeful sign, it remains to be seen whether this tentative progress can be translated into sustained political accommodation and reconciliation.  

Now the former Vice President has attacked Obama on Iraq for “rushing” to withdraw troops to meet a campaign pledge. This is way off base. First, it was President Bush who signed the status of forces agreement with the Iraqi government that set a fixed timetable for withdrawal. Second, conservatives on the Hill fully backed the President’s announcement of a withdrawal timetable last February. Finally, the Obama administration should continue to help Iraq mediate its political disputes, but their resolution ultimately depends on Iraqis, not American soldiers and Marines. The U.S. should encourage Iraqi-led solutions to the country’s political obstacles, as it continues to implement the phased-withdrawal spelled out in the Bush-brokered Status of Forces Agreement.

Following grim suicide bombing, Iraq takes tentative step forward on election law. The Wall Street Journal reported on the aftermath of the grisly bombings in Baghdad on Sunday. “Iraqi authorities scrambled to reassure the public after the worst bombing attack in two years by increasing vigilance at checkpoints and closing off roads in the Iraqi capital,” said the Journal, which indicated that the death toll of the attacks had risen to “at least 155 people.” The Washington Post suggested that the bombings appeared to be politically motivated, reporting that “The attacks targeted the Justice Ministry, the Baghdad Provincial Council and the Ministry of Municipalities and Public Works, and appeared designed to portray the Shiite-led government as feeble and rudderless ahead of parliamentary elections scheduled for January.” According to the New York Times, “Responsibility for the latest bombings was claimed on Monday by the Islamic State of Iraq, an umbrella group that includes Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia, a largely Iraqi group with some foreign leadership, according to a posting on a jihadi Web site, the SITE Intelligence Group said.”  The Times went on to say that “the violence appeared to have jolted members of Parliament into action: Calling the bombings an attack on the national unity government, Iraqi leaders swiftly responded with a compromise agreement on a new election law that had eluded them for weeks and threatened to delay national elections scheduled for January.”  However, the Associated Press cautioned that the promises of a political settlement “held little sway with Iraqis outraged at the government's inability to maintain peace in the city.” [Wall Street Journal, 10/27/09. Washington Post, 10/27/09. NY Times, 10/27/09. Associated Press, 10/26/09]

Iraq continues to face challenges, but the U.S. must remain committed to a policy of withdrawal, transitioning responsibility to Iraqis. 
Iraq continues to face a set of daunting challenges.  According to the International Crisis Group, “violence, coupled with a political situation that remains highly dysfunctional, leaves a lot of uncertainty as to Iraq’s viability following parliamentary elections in January 2010 and especially after the U.S. combat troop withdrawal, which is to be completed by August 2010. The country continues to struggle with massive corruption and deep political divisions. One of the most destabilising conflicts concerns disputed territories and hydrocarbon resources to which both the federal government and the Kurdistan regional government lay claim. Al-Qaeda in Iraq, which was pushed on the defensive during the post-2007 U.S. ‘surge’, remains active in some areas and is working to stoke ethnic tensions, just as it fuelled sectarian tensions several years ago.” The Crisis Group makes clear that to overcome these obstacles, the U.S. must encourage Iraqi-led solutions, as it continues to abide by the terms spelled out in the Status of Force Agreement that was signed by the Bush administration. “In order to prevent an outbreak of deadly ethnic conflict after it pulls out its forces, Washington must craft an exit strategy that encourages Iraqi leaders to reach a series of political bargains on power, resources and territory,” said the Crisis Group report.  The future of Iraq is in the hands of the Iraqis; U.S. forces must continue to withdraw and transition responsibility to Iraqis on a pace that is consistent with the Status of Forces Agreement signed by President Bush – as well as Obama’s pledge at Camp Lejeune to honor his campaign pledge and remove all U.S. troops from Iraq by the end of 2011. [ICG, September 2009]

Conservative attempts to rewrite history on Iraq – ignore widespread bipartisan support for President Obama’s withdrawal plan
.  In his speech accepting the “Keeper of the Flame” award from Frank Gaffney’s neoconservative think tank the Center for Security Policy, former Vice President Dick Cheney “in Iraq, it is vitally important that President Obama, in his rush to withdraw troops, not undermine the progress we’ve made in recent years... When he finally got around to talking about Iraq, he told the media that he reiterated to Maliki his intention to remove all U.S. troops from Iraq. Former President Bush's bold decision to change strategy in Iraq and surge U.S. forces there set the stage for success in that country. Iraq has the potential to be a strong, democratic ally in the war on terrorism, and an example of economic and democratic reform in the heart of the Middle East. The Obama Administration has an obligation to protect this young democracy and build on the strategic success we have achieved in Iraq.” Earlier this year, Dick Cheney declared mission accomplished, “We’ve accomplished nearly everything we set out to do... We have succeeded in creating in the heart of the Middle East a democratically governed Iraq, and that is a big deal. And it is, in fact, what we set out to do.”  Bill Kristol also revised history declaring victory saying, “we won that war and we paid great sacrifice to do so and I do not want to fritter it away because of a stupid campaign promise about a 16 month withdrawal and then an arbitrary deadline.” Kori Schake, a Bush administration State Department official also said that, “The administration set a politically expedient timeline for abandoning Iraq with no hedge against resurgent violence or challenges to what we and the Iraqis have achieved in this most important of the wars we are fighting.”

Despite the conservatives’ rhetoric, the surge failed to heal Iraq’s many divides.  The Washington Post reported this summer that, “the administration is concerned that ongoing political disputes between Iraqi Kurds and Arabs, between Sunnis and Shiites, and within the majority Shiite community will impede progress on economic and governance issues and may flare into another round of serious sectarian strife.” In response, the administration has appointed Vice President Joe Biden to oversee Iraq policy.  However, “Biden's job is extremely difficult, and one that the 2007 surge was designed to accomplish but has not yet succeeded in doing,” writes CAP’s Brian Katulis.

Additionally, these conservatives are not in line with the Republican leadership, the Iraqi people and government, nor the American people who all firmly support the Obama plan.  In response to Obama’s withdrawal plan, House Republican leader John Boehner said, “The plan put forward by President Obama continues our strategy of bringing troops home from Iraq as they succeed in stabilizing the country.  I believe he has outlined a responsible approach that retains maximum flexibility to reconsider troop levels and to respond to changes in the security environment should circumstances on the ground warrant.”  Even “Sen. John McCain, who lost his White House bid to Barack Obama last fall, is supporting the president's new plan to pull most U.S. troops out of Iraq by the fall of 2010,” according to CBS.  The plan also enjoys support among the American people.  CNN reports that, “Seven out of ten people questioned in a CNN/Opinion Research Corporation survey released Thursday, the sixth anniversary of the start of the Iraq war, say they support the president's announced plan to remove most U.S. troops from Iraq by August of next year but keep a force of 35,000 to 50,000 in the country.” [Dick Cheney, via NY Times, 03/15/09. Dick Cheney, Center for Security Policy, 10/22/09. Kori Schake, Foreign Policy, 4/09. Bill Kristol, Fox News via Crooks and Liars, 03/01/09. Washington Post, 7/23/09. Brian Katulis, 7/22/09. John Boehner, 2/27/09. CBS News, 2/27/09. New York Times, 2/26/09. CNN, 3/19/09]

What We’re Reading

Speaking to Marines and Seamen, President Obama explained his need to carefully deliberate and analyze the choices he is facing regarding possible Afghanistan policy revisions. Back in Washington, Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Senator John Kerry, voiced skepticism regarding General McChrystal’s troop request, saying reform by the Afghan government must precede any additional troop deployment.

A rising foreign-service officer resigns due to the strategic direction of the Afghan War, causing government officials to explain his symbolic absence.

Afghan incumbent Hamid Karzai has said his top elections official, appointed by him, will remain in place for the November 7th presidential runoff election, despite  his active or negligent role in the fraud of the previous presidential election.

Several helicopter crashes resulted in the deaths of 14 Americans, including several civilians, underscoring the risk for military and civilian personnel in Afghanistan.

German troops face their first major combat operations since the Second World War, breaking a previous taboo of the Nazi era. However, political support for their mission in Afghanistan may wane.

American officials approve of Pakistan’s aggressive moves against Taliban and Al-Qaeda strongholds in their tribal areas, but as militants strike back at Pakistani cities, American pressure is seen as more and more cumbersome to Pakistan officials.

The Iraqi government has restored security measures to increase the barriers between bombers in infrastructure, as a large blast targeting government buildings creates the political movement to approve a long-stalled elections law. Meanwhile, an Inspector General’s report faults the construction of the US embassy in Bagdad, calling the workmanship shoddy.

Iranian officials appear divided on the draft proposal the US and allied nations offered to transfer its nuclear  fuel, while political tension in Iran erupts at a historically sleepy exposition on media organizations.

A lack of foreign language translators continues to backlog the FBI’s review of intelligence material.

Mozambique’s upcoming election appears unfair as a major opposition party is left off the ballot.

Senior Obama administration officials will travel to Honduras to help break the logjam holding up negotiations between ousted President Manuel Zelaya and the interim Honduran government.

Reconstruction and business appear to be stalled in Gaza--a result of its increasing international isolation.

Mexicans are split over a video showing a brutal vigilante beating of criminals, causing some to celebrate the vigilantes and many others to decry the lack of progress in reforming Mexico’s justice system.

Commentary of the Day

Roger Cohen hopes President Obama will be as candid as British officials have been in assessing the risks, costs and opportunities of a counterinsurgency strategy in Afghanistan.

The Washington Post suggests caution to the Obama administration in negotiation tactics with the North Korean regime on their nuclear program.

Leo Michel and Robert Hunter argue that the US needs to continue to listen to Allied concerns regarding NATO’s mission in Afghanistan, and not just offer criticism about national caveats.

The New York Times applauds The Hague for continuing the trial of Serbian General Radovan Karadzic with or without him, noting his trial will help bring closure to the victims of Srebrenica and the entire Bosnia War.