[Overseas view]Iraq is no closer to stabilityOnce again, Washington is getting the military tactics in Iraq right and the country’s politics wrong. The troop surge strategy has achieved important military objectives. It may achieve more. But the larger purpose of the surge has been to enable Iraq’s elected leaders to forge the necessary political compromises for long-term Iraqi stability. That goal remains as elusive as ever.
Nearly five years ago, U.S. forces rolled across Iraq, drove Saddam Hussein from power and seized control of the country. Only after this military triumph did the real trouble begin. Poor post-conflict planning left U.S. troops unable to pacify the country. Sunni fears of Shia domination sparked tensions, then violence. An Iraqi insurgency was born. Would-be jihadis entered the country to wage war on U.S. soldiers and a fractious, Shia-led Iraqi central government. Much of the country descended into a sectarian battle for assets and influence.
The Bush administration’s troop surge, which moved 28,000 additional U.S. troops into central Iraq earlier this year, has reduced some of Iraq’s violence. The Pentagon reports that fewer U.S. soldiers died in Iraq in November than in any month since March 2006. According to the Iraqi government, the number of Iraqi civilians killed or found dead has fallen from nearly 2,000 in May to just 530 in November. Some observers dispute these numbers, but the security situation in central Iraq appears much improved.
As more Sunni tribal leaders agree to join U.S. forces in targeting al-Qaeda-inspired foreign militants, optimism has grown that Iraq can begin to export more oil. Some Sunni militias have been encouraged (and probably paid) to provide security along the main pipeline that moves oil from the northern Iraqi city of Kirkuk to the Turkish port at Ceyhan, and the evidence suggests there are now fewer disruptions in the pipeline’s operation.
The latest military successes in Iraq have given the Bush administration new breathing room at home. It’s become a bit easier for the White House to shrug off election-year calls for a near-term withdrawal of large numbers of U.S. troops.
But for all their hard work, American soldiers cannot force a settlement of Iraq’s long-term political problems. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s government remains crippled by corruption, incompetence and the fragmentation of the Shia-led United Iraqi Alliance.
He has failed to integrate enough Sunnis into Iraqi governance to allay their fears of political domination.
The inability of Shia and Sunnis to agree on an equitable distribution of Iraq’s oil revenues or to find compromise on the exclusion of thousands of former members of Saddam Hussein’s Baath Party from government jobs undermines hopes for sectarian reconciliation.
Further, the Shia-dominated central government wasn’t part of the U.S. deal with Sunni tribal leaders. Officials in Baghdad fear that once Washington finally withdraws most U.S. troops, Sunnis will use American arms and money to attack their Shia rivals.
The surge was also meant to undermine radical Shia cleric Moqtada al-Sadr and disarm his Mahdi Army militia. The group, unwilling to risk a head-on collision with U.S. troops, has gone quiet. But having avoided direct conflict, al-Sadr and his militia will likely remain a force in Iraqi politics long after U.S. troops have gone home.
Then there are the security threats the surge was never meant to address. As British and Australian troops withdraw from the southern Iraqi province of Basra, there probably won’t be enough U.S. troops to prevent an intra-Shia battle for the region’s oil wealth.
Basra Province is home to Iraq’s only ports. Stability there is crucial for the security of the majority of Iraq’s oil exports, which will fund 85 percent of the Iraqi central government’s budget in 2008.
Even the security improvements along the northern pipeline may prove temporary. They will depend entirely on the continued willingness of Sunni tribal and militia leaders to fight alongside U.S. troops. That’s where the Kurds come in.
To win Kurdish support for approval of the new Iraqi constitution in 2005, a provision was added to the document allowing residents of oil-rich Kirkuk to hold a referendum by the end of 2007 on whether the city will continue to be governed from Baghdad or come under Kurdish jurisdiction. A vote would almost certainly pass control of the city to the Kurdish Regional Government, because most of Kirkuk’s current residents are Kurds.
That’s a big problem for both Shia and Sunnis, who fear Kurds will not share in the city’s oil wealth. Sunni tribal leaders will not continue to safeguard the security of a pipeline that serves only to enrich Kurds. The Shia-led central government will continue to resist Kurdish control of Kirkuk as well.
Complicating matters further, ethnic Turks make up a sizeable minority in Kirkuk. Kurdish-controlled northern Iraq is already coping with cross-border Turkish military strikes on the PKK, or Kurdistan Worker’s Party. Turkey’s own Kurdish militants have sought safe haven there. Turkey is highly unlikely to invade Iraq over Kirkuk. But its military presence along the border raises risks of unintended conflict. Under intense pressure from Washington, the referendum has been postponed. But it can’t be put off indefinitely.
But the biggest problem with the surge is that it cannot be sustained. The U.S. troops will eventually leave Iraq. Shia, Sunnis and Kurds know it. Nouri al-Maliki and Moqtada al-Sadr know it. Iran knows it. That’s why recent U.S. military successes alone are unlikely to achieve lasting results.
Perhaps that explains why the Iraqi government sent no representative to the U.S.-sponsored Israeli-Palestinian peace talks in Annapolis, Maryland. Maliki knows his government’s ties with Tehran matter more than its relations with Washington for Iraq’s long-term security.
The latest U.S. military successes are real. But the failures of Iraqis to reach a political settlement tell the more important story. That’s why Iraq is no closer to lasting stability than before the surge began.
*The writer is president of Eurasia Group, a political-risk consultancy. He can be reached via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
by Ian Bremmer