Iraq and Afghanistan — any silver linings in our playbook?

There's been a brief break in the storm clouds over Baghdad and Kabul this week; both countries' struggles to form governments after elections achieved minor progress with the election of a parliament speaker in Iraq and an agreement to audit election results in Afghanistan. But the domestic dysfunction is deep, and cannot be easily resolved. The only possible good news is the demonstrated capacity of U.S. diplomacy to play a constructive role in cajoling the parties to compromise.

Iraq is the more acute situation, on the ground and in terms of enduring strategic American interests. The incursion by radical Islamist forces into Sunni-majority swaths of Iraqi territory presents a deep crisis of legitimacy for the government in Baghdad, and has already undermined the "territorial integrity and unity" of the Iraqi state, sacrosanct principles of U.S. and international policy toward Iraq. The stunning insensitivity of the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, which has alienated both Sunnis and Kurds, has been a growing concern for Western partners of Iraq, but it took the Islamic State's dramatic invasion to focus the minds. The dilemma now is how to work with diverse Iraqi political forces to form a more inclusive government, without necessarily repudiating the electoral process, which did, after all, produce more votes for Maliki than any other party or leader.

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Afghanistan, curiously enough, appears to be the easier case. Both presidential contenders, former World Bank official Ashraf Ghani and former Vice President Abdallah Abdallah, accept international intervention to overcome the impasse caused by charges of fraud after a runoff reversed the fortunes of the two rivals. Abdallah's camp has not accepted that Ghani came from behind to prevail in the runoff. The two camps are arguing about implementation arrangements (Ghani, the frontrunner, wants more local control of the audit process; Abdallah the aggrieved runner-up wants more international supervision and authority), but there's a plausible scenario that Afghanistan will indeed have an accepted electoral outcome and a new president soon.

In both cases, these domestic political crises present challenges to U.S. interests and the legacy of our engagement over the past decade: They are clear proof that the institutions the U.S. nurtured are still fragile, and that political processes are not sufficiently inclusive or tolerant. For sure, true societal reconciliation has not occurred, but that is understood to be a generational project, not an easy fix after the traumas of recent decades.

The absence of a U.S. military presence to deter violence and support institution-building has reduced U.S. leverage and has created conditions, in Iraq in particular, for spoilers to undermine the viability of the new government. But that reality, ironic as it may be, is in fact part of U.S. strategy; to accept the consequences of the return of true sovereignty to the Iraqis and Afghans. A false assumption creeps into the public debate that somehow the U.S. could have, should have insisted on retaining forces in Iraq in 2011 or Afghanistan by 2015. In reality, the political and legal processes put in place meant that the governments in Baghdad and Kabul were the "deciders" about foreign forces. Our commitment to supporting post-Saddam, post-Taliban rule obliged us to accept their decisions, even as we tried to persuade them to see the benefits of longer security transitions.

The current state of play is not entirely bleak. Elections matter in both places, even if democratic behavior is still evolving and some parts of the elite and the electorate still prefer a strongman political culture. Political figures in both countries were quite receptive to emergency visits by Secretary of State John Kerry, and U.S. diplomats have been important facilitators of political compromises.

The established Baghdad political forces are still able to bargain and jockey for position, and it is clear that Maliki's political clout has declined dramatically due to the Islamic State aggression. Odds are that the prevailing formula — a Shia prime minister, a Sunni speaker of parliament and a Kurdish president — will be retained. It will be an ambiguous outcome, perhaps the last gasp for a strong Iraq, should Sunni and Kurdish regions continue on a path of separating from the political authority of Baghdad. For Afghanistan, the new audit process could well lead to an accepted and acceptable outcome.

So there's a silver lining in the U.S.' ability to help persuade political forces in these messy democratizing countries to stay the course. Our support for elections is tempered with our support for functioning governance capacity, and we can help design solutions that advance both inclusiveness and capacity to govern. This exercise of soft power is enhanced by the engagement and presence of the U.S. military, finally requested by Baghdad in the face of an overwhelming threat, and likely to be approved by the new president of Afghanistan.

Laipson is president and CEO of the Stimson Center.