May 22, 2008 – As the debate over supplemental funding for the war in Iraq plays out in Congress, a growing consensus on the need to adopt a policy of “strategic patience” has become accepted wisdom in the national debate. Proponents of this policy argue that solidifying recent security and political gains in Iraq is contingent upon the US military remaining in the country indefinitely. However, in order to truly capitalize on those gains, the United States must begin to withdraw its forces from Iraq.
more stories like thisAn unconditional and open-ended military commitment to a dysfunctional and sectarian Iraqi government will not bring about true national reconciliation, which is necessary to capitalize on what temporary security and political gains have been made.
Rather, this commitment forfeits what little leverage the United States has left: the ability to extract political compromises from a status quo Iraqi government by presenting it with a credible threat of a US withdrawal if concessions are not made and implemented.
Conversely, an indefinite US military presence will reverse the calculations of Iraqi opposition groups – most notably the Sunni Awakening forces and the Sadr movement – that have been critical in bringing about short-term security improvements.
The United States and the Iraqi government share a common interest in a stable Iraq, but further US support must be conditional upon the Iraqi government pursuing political reconciliation. Absent a credible withdrawal plan, the Iraqi government’s sectarian political calculations will remain constant and opposition groups’ recent alliance or patience with the United States will unravel.
First, the Iraqi government. The Bush administration’s open-ended commitment has allowed the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to approve only token political benchmarks while core power-sharing legislation remains unaddressed. Unqualified US support has also given Maliki’s Dawa party and his Shi’a allies in the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq a free hand to take on their political rivals militarily.
Perhaps the only remaining leverage the United States holds over Iraqi lawmakers, regardless of their ethnic or sectarian identity, is the latter’s need of a sustained US military presence that ensures their political and physical survival.
Faced with the potential loss of their American backers, the predominantly Shi’a Iraqi government will have an incentive to integrate its Sunni Awakening and Shi’a rivals into the Iraqi government and security forces on their terms while the balance of power is in their favor. While there is no guarantee that key power sharing legislation – an oil sharing law, a constitutional review, and the implementation of provincial elections – will be undertaken, the current dynamic has not achieved a resolution of these issues and does not appear to be able to do so in the near future.
Second, Sunni Awakening groups and “Sons of Iraq” militias. Despite their cooperation with US forces and recent efforts to form political parties in anticipation of the proposed provincial elections, these Sunni forces still demand a US withdrawal and have predicated their political participation on a US departure.
Indeed, the United States must begin to withdraw in order to capitalize on this development.
The perception that we will maintain a large military presence in Iraq indefinitely will endanger this cooperation and ultimately undermine the security progress that has been made. As one Awakening commander put it in February, “If nothing changes, then we’ll suspend and quit. Then we’ll go back to fighting the Americans.”
Finally, the Sadr movement. Sadr’s August 2007 cease-fire restored his once damaged credibility and allowed him to reorganize his forces and wait out the US presence. However, recent confrontations with US and Iraqi forces are changing Sadr’s calculations. Fighting in Basra and Baghdad have resulted in a loss of the movement’s power and influence and have convinced Sadr rank and file that the United States and other Shi’a groups are conspiring against them. As long as open confrontation with US forces persists, Sadr’s patience will continue to wane.
In order for the United States to regain control of its security interests in Iraq and the greater Middle East, it must use its only remaining leverage with major Iraqi groups: a credible military withdrawal.