Wednesday, August 06, 2008

The Future of the U.S. Military Presence in Iraq

With the political atmosphere in Washington DC charged for the upcoming election, there are few issues debated more that the future of US military presence in Iraq? On Friday, July 25th the United States Institute of Peace, USIP, decided to engage those on all sides of this debate for a panel discussion concerning this very subject: The Future of the U.S. Military Presence in Iraq. The speakers included Ms. Kimberly Kagan, Mr. Charles Knight, Mr. Colin Kahl, and Ms. Rend al-Rahim.

Ms. Kimberly Kagan, the President of the Institute for the Study of War, detailed that the surges contributed to political process although political advances lag behind those of increased security. Our objectives in Iraq are to help Iraq establish peace with neighbors, become an ally in the War on Terror, and to generate a stable, legitimate, democratic government. She suggests we retain US military presence to prevent ‘malign’ influences on the upcoming elections and any resurgence of violence. It is wise to avoid considering the upcoming election as a culmination of efforts but instead to look at them as the beginning of a political process that will continue to need social, economic, and political assistance. She believes the US should maintain ‘peacekeeping activities’ because a withdrawal would give Iranian-backed enemies a timetable to regroup and jeopardize the political process. The presence of US forces allows the Iraqi government to focus on governance, reconstruction, and reintegration of previous extremist into government to begin negotiations.

Quite contrary to Ms. Kagan’s speech, Mr. Charles Knight, Co-director of the Project on Defense Alternatives at the Commonwealth Institute, strongly expressed that the US military occupation is the central feature of “our strategic failure” in Iraq. He discussed the miscalculation of what could be accomplished by arms, the failure of the US to understand identity politics, and the failure to consider international cooperation and legitimacy of actions. He expressed that the US military presence in Iraq has “tarnished the meaning and promise of democracy.” Mr. Knight advocates for unconditional withdrawal accompanied by internationally supported reconciliation efforts under a code of non-interference. While he acknowledges that the surges have increased security, he believes it is far from sufficient and that the US- Iraqi alliance is a “shaky marriage of convenience.”

Mr. Colin Kahl, a Senior Fellow at the Center for a New American Security, believes that our future presence in Iraqi is “all about balance,” between eradicating terrorism, generating stability, and providing leadership and credibility for governance. To contend with ongoing problems of ethno-sectarian conflicts, Mr. Kahl advocates that Iraq bring extremists into the political process, improve governance and increase employment. Additionally, the US needs to help professionalize the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) to ensure that they will act as a neutral body accountable to the state. The best option for future US military involvement is that of conditional engagement to pursue withdrawal and also provide residual support. The idea of a timeline with ‘conditions’ attached is paramount because the fundamental flaw in our strategy has been US politics not involving conditionality according to Mr. Kahl.

USIP’s Iraqi Fellow, Ms. Rend al-Rahim strongly echoed Mr. Kahl’s sentiments stating that he has a good understanding on things on the ground and the failure of US policy strategy. She furthered Mr. Kahl’s argument that the surges have been successful in increasing security but their original intent to improve the political process has seen little gain. Furthermore, she cited four mistakes the U.S. made in structuring the ISF: focusing on quantity and not quality, focusing on combat instead of command or control, ignoring integration of those serving in the ISF, and ignoring issues of loyalty of the army to the state. Ms. al-Rahim supports conditional engagement in Iraq and believes that the United States’ lack of declaratory statements and sanctions against Iraq have actually hindered the development of good governance. Iraq remains fragmented and faces problems with amnesty which prevent sustainable security. She comments that is a great sense of apprehension in Iraq that the increased security can break down at any moment; therefore, the US military should continue to stress the importance of integrating the ISF. If Sunnis do not feel as though they are equal partners in the state then Iraq may face another insurgency and relapse in violence. Sunnis must see the benefits of participating in society and they must be integrated into the leadership of the country. Above all else, Ms. al-Rahim emphasized that the US has not yet used the whole range of carrots and sticks in the last 5 years in Iraq and the military should change our strategy to one of conditional engagement while we strengthen the ISF.

This idea of conditional withdrawal supported by both Mr. Kahl and Ms. al-Rahim and opposed by both Ms. Kagan and Mr. Knight adequately illustrated the strong differences in opinion presented at the panel. For example at the conclusion of the panel, while Colin was of the mindset that 2009 will be spent “managing our increasing irrelevance,” Ms. Kagan strongly believed that 2009 will be a crucial year demanding strong US military support for the upcoming Iraqi elections.

Sponsor: United States Institute of Peace
Date: July 25, 2009
Time: 10 am -12 pm
Representative Attending: Jessica Walker

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