Iraq outlook gloomy in the near term and post-withdrawal period

Despite some tactical successes, U.S. voters are increasingly convinced that U.S. forces will be unable to restore stability in Iraq. As political disillusionment with the Iraq project gradually forces a troop drawdown, attention is turning to the likely consequences for Iraq and the region of a reduced U.S. military presence after 2009.

According to the latest (June 1-3) Gallup polling data, 71 percent of the U.S. public believes that the campaign in Iraq is going “badly or very badly,” a record high, and a majority now support a timetable for withdrawal. Conscious of these political realities, U.S. officials — including President Bush — realize that time is running out on the Iraq project. While there is little prospect that the bulk of U.S. forces will be withdrawn before Bush leaves office in January 2009, it is equally certain that a major drawdown will occur before the next presidential election cycle in 2012. This pullout will likely occur before the United States has achieved its strategic objectives, which will have significant consequences for Iraq, the wider Middle East and the outlook for U.S. foreign policy.

Medium-term withdrawal

The political balance in the United States is such that a medium-term troop withdrawal appears to be in prospect:

•No near-term retreat. A substantial U.S. troop pullout from Iraq is unlikely as long as Bush is president. It would represent a humiliating defeat for the administration and an admission of failure on Bush’s signature effort in response to the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks. The president remains the commander in chief, and there are no signs that he believes even a phased withdrawal is compatible with U.S. national security interests.

•Post-2009 withdrawal imperative. Nevertheless, it is highly unlikely that Bush’s successor, Republican or Democrat, could win reelection in 2012 with a large U.S. troop presence in Iraq. Public opinion has soured on the war, and in many ways has soured on the Iraqis. Hundreds of billions of dollars in assistance and over 3,500 U.S. soldiers’ lives have failed to produce either a strong Iraqi government or a grateful Iraqi public. Increasingly, U.S. voters see Iraq as an ever-deepening quagmire.

Sobering post-withdrawal outlook

The task for all — Washington, Baghdad, and regional neighbors and allies — is to help shape an environment in Iraq that is both stable and sustainable within the context of an inevitably reduced U.S. military presence. However, as Washington assesses Iraqi government capacity, its own enormous tasks, the strategic objectives of other regional players and the chaotic situation on the ground, the outlook is very sobering:

•Inadequate Iraqi government. The Iraqi central government, to the extent it exists, is a collection of sectarian fiefdoms with so weak an institutional capacity that it cannot even spend money — let alone build infrastructure. Ministries are handed over to sectarian parties (few of any other kind are left), who then put their cronies in positions of influence and push out whatever talented bureaucrats might still be left after four years of chronic violence. The parliament remains paralyzed, and there is no notion of constituent services. To the extent that anything can get done on the governmental level, to an increasing degree it is done locally, via provincial warlords, militias or their proxies, each with its own agendas, clients and enemies.

•Inadequate U.S. strategy. Meanwhile, Washington is facing up to the inadequacy of its policy and strategy over the past four years. Infrastructure has been blown up time after time, hastily constructed buildings have begun to crumble, and it is clear that the U.S.-trained Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) are still not up to the job. Moreover, the policy tools that the United States has at its disposal are rapidly diminishing, since its influence over the central government appears to be shrinking, its ability to execute projects is crippled, and even its ability to be Iraq’s security guarantor is dwindling. Washington no longer calls the shots, and it is no longer indispensable to the outcome of disputes. Iraqis will increasingly direct strategy according to their own objectives without reference to U.S. goals.

Only last year, the Bush administration was still in deep denial about conditions in Iraq. Critics were confronted with compendia of charts and timetables purportedly demonstrating that reconstruction was on track. The administration blamed the media for concentrating too much on violence, and not enough on the “successes” in the country. However, after conspicuous setbacks in Iraq allowed the Democrats to retake control of Congress in November 2006, the administration’s counterattack against its critics has changed tack.

Gates’s rethink

A large measure of this change is attributable to Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, a “realist” rather than an ideologue, in stark contrast to his long-serving predecessor, Donald Rumsfeld. Gates has both altered the tone of the debate on Iraq and directed his staff to start planning for what happens in the autumn if the current U.S. troop “surge” does not yield the desired results. Even a few months ago, admitting the possibility of failure would have been unthinkable, regardless of its prudence.

Fragmentation and ‘soft partition’

Overall, Iraq is becoming increasingly decentralized, as local warlords grab power at the expense of Baghdad.
Simultaneously, the United States (which has poured resources into bolstering the central government) has found itself less and less relevant to local politics, where the real decisions are increasingly made. This trend is likely to continue, diminishing Washington’s ability to arbitrate internal Iraqi disputes.

Therefore, Iraq is more likely to fade into a “soft partition” than disintegrate into three separate states. The costs of a break-up in terms of surrounding states’ opposition is too great, and the benefits too meager, to justify it. Kurdistan, for example, will need Turkey as an outlet for Kurdish oil, and a definitive secession from Iraq proper would provoke Turkish fears so greatly as to undermine the success of Kurdish independence. Far more likely is a de facto separation of the country into three or more semi-independent enclaves, each with its own revenue stream, but maintaining notional loyalty to the central government.

Consequences of withdrawal

Since January, the debate in Washington has turned decisively from one of how to make Iraq into a success to one of how to prevent the collapse of Iraq from threatening wider U.S. interests in the Middle East:

•No al Qaeda haven. Some analysts have suggested that a weak Iraq would create enduring safe havens for global terrorist groups. However, the United States can manage such a possibility through a combination of military and intelligence tools, and it can redeploy to allow for effective (if sporadic) action even in the absence of a large U.S. troop presence. The idea that a collapse in Iraq could lead to radicalism metastasizing throughout the Middle East is overblown. Combined action by the Iraqis, the United States, and neighboring Arab states will circumscribe the ability of global jihadist groups, such as al Qaeda, to use Iraq as a base.

•Increasing sectarian hatred. More troubling is the possibility that proxy wars in Iraq will stoke increased sectarian hatred throughout the Middle East. Mostly, such ill will may reflect Arab-Iranian tensions, but neither side is beyond using Iraq as a showcase for the depravity of the other side.

Perception of ‘defeat’

However, the greatest danger following a U.S. pullout from Iraq would not be on the state level at all. It is the inspiration that radical groups would take from a rout of the United States. Republicans are most prone to emphasize the insalubrious “demonstration effect” of U.S. failure, while Democrats are perhaps not sensitive enough to the comfort and lessons that radicals would draw from successfully driving out the United States:

•Arab-Israeli conflict implications. U.S. “defeat” would have a deleterious effect on the Arab-Israeli conflict, where even Hamas fears that it is losing ground to even more radical groups. The tactical lessons of Iraq are surely applicable to operations against Israelis — just as the Israelis provided training and advice to U.S. soldiers preparing for urban warfare in Iraq four years ago.

•North African radicalization. Another area of concern is North Africa, where jihadi groups —perhaps including some with direct experience in Iraq — have been stepping up their activities against local governments. The emergence of “al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb” may merely have been intended as a re-branding of the Algerian Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat, but it could have far greater import if the strategic ground appears to be shifting between pro-Western and anti-Western forces.

•Destabilized Jordan. Finally, U.S. withdrawal could significantly destabilize Jordan. Amman has been fighting a long-running battle against jihadist influence, most visibly with the emergence of the late Jordanian native Abu Musab al-Zarqawi as the leader of al Qaeda in Iraq. Jordan has sought to shut the border with Iraq and closely watch the 750,000 Iraqi refugees currently in the country. Yet a U.S. rout in Iraq — combined with spiraling violence there, a stalemate on Arab-Israeli issues and a worsening local economy — would imperil Jordan’s pro-Western monarchy.

Oxford Analytica is an international consulting firm providing strategic analysis on world events for business and government leaders. See .