Thursday, March 20, 2008

While the candidates debate how the next president should handle Iraq, no one is addressing a more urgent problem: What can and should be done to prevent Iraq from backsliding between now and January 2009.

After two weeks in 10 of Iraq’s 18 provinces, walking in neighborhoods with U.S. soldiers, conferring with State Department and USAID personnel and meeting with dozens of Iraqis, I came away with both a greater sense of hope and a deeper sense of concern. Even a skeptic of the war in Iraq cannot visit places like Adhamiyah, Doura and Iskandariyah today without being struck by how much security has improved. Markets are open, shoppers throng the streets and children are back in school in areas that were deadly urban battlegrounds only months ago.

Security in many parts of the country has improved markedly due to a host of factors: the Sunni “Awakening,” Moktada al-Sadr’s ceasefire, the shift in U.S. strategy to protecting the Iraqi population, the surge of U.S. forces in Baghdad, increasingly effective operations against al Qaeda and greater professionalism among some (though not all) Iraqi military units. Having lived through the sectarian violence of 2006 and early 2007, many Iraqis now feel that Iraq has been given a second chance.

But increased security has also created rapidly rising expectations for essential services like electricity, for political reconciliation and open, free and fair elections, for equitable distribution of Iraq’s vast oil wealth, and for jobs.These expectations must be met to consolidate recent security gains.

We are now in what U.S. counterinsurgency doctrine calls the “build” phase — certainly the hardest phase in which the primary objective is enhancing the legitimacy of the host-nation government in the eyes of the population. The problem is that, to date, improved security has increased our legitimacy, not that of the Iraqi government.

And herein lies the cause for concern. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki government appears largely unwilling or unable to take advantage of the space created by improved security to move toward political accommodation, provide for the basic needs of the Iraqi people and lay the foundation for stability — and its own legitimacy. And the Bush administration appears to lack a strategy for getting it to do so.

From Sunni tribal and business leaders in Baghdad and the west to Shi’ite mayors and governors in the center and south, mounting frustration with the incompetence, dysfunction and corruption of the central government was universal and palpable.

One Sunni sheik, who welcomed us into his well-guarded home to talk over glasses of sweet tea, recounted how he and his men had helped to drive al Qaeda out of his Baghdad neighborhood. “Now we are working with the Americans. We have reconciled with the coalition.” And the Iraqi government? “We receive nothing from the Iraqi government. They have a sectarian agenda.” Then, he added, “If the people here continue to feel marginalized and discriminated against, they will become vulnerable to radicalization again.”

Further south, Shi’ite mayors and governors also complained about the central government’s lack of investment in critical infrastructure, essential services, agriculture and industry. One senior Iraqi military commander warned that the lack of serious reconstruction was making the local Shi’ite population increasingly vulnerable to the influence of Iranian-backed militias.

While there has been some de facto revenue sharing by the central government, and the Iraqi parliament recently passed de-Ba’athification reform, an amnesty law and a budget, the Iraqis we spoke to were deeply frustrated by the lack of political and economic progress overall.

Unless this situation changes, recent security gains are likely to be difficult to consolidate and may be quite perishable, no matter how many brigades the United States keeps in Iraq. The Bush administration must use its remaining time in office to push the Iraqi government toward real power- and resource-sharing arrangements. This is a tall order, as it requires something that U.S. efforts in Iraq have lacked from the beginning: a clear and compelling political strategy.

In the near term, the focus must be on building the political coalitions and negotiating the compromises necessary to achieve a handful of critical priorities: a provincial powers law; free and fair provincial elections; an equitable oil law; and concrete steps toward political accommodation, such as the integration of more Sunnis into the Iraqi security forces and more employment opportunities in former insurgent strongholds.

This will require actually using what leverage we have to pressure key Iraqi players to take specific actions, particularly as we negotiate a new bilateral agreement. Iraq is seeking significant U.S. commitments of political support, security assistance and economic engagement. These, plus U.S. force levels, offer leverage for pushing the central government to prove its legitimacy and its worthiness of continued American support.

Unless we succeed in pushing the Iraqi government to embrace political accommodation and invest in its own country in the coming months, the Bush administration risks not only losing hard-fought security gains but also bequeathing to the next president an Iraq in danger of sliding back into civil war.

Michele A. Flournoy, a former principal deputy assistant secretary of defense, is president and co-founder of the Center for a New American Security.

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