Weekly Commentary -- The End of the War?Has the Iraq war ended while we were all concerned with other things?
Perhaps, if you take seriously the draft status of forces agreement between Iraq and the United States, supposedly up for ratification in the Iraqi parliament this week.
The is surprisingly clear. It calls for withdrawal of U.S. forces from cities, towns, and villages by June 30 of next year, and complete withdrawal from Iraq by the end of 2011.
It makes mercenaries and other foreign civilian contractors fully subject to Iraqi law. It requires U.S. troops to get Iraqi permission in order to detain anyone (although it is hard to see how this will be respected in practice). It states that the U.S. presence in Iraq is authorized only in regard to its operations in Iraq; Iraq is not to be used as a staging area for attacks on other countries. Although, of course, it already is.
Some of the key provisions are fairly malleable in practice. U.S. troops are supposedly subject to Iraqi law when off base and not on duty, but the agreement allows the United States to determine retroactively whether or not a given person was on duty. And the agreement, of course, does not abridge the sovereign right of the Iraqi government to ask U.S. forces to stay longer – although to do so would take an affirmative act, rendering it unlikely under most foreseeable circumstances.
Passage of the agreement is not at all guaranteed. Sadr has already announced his opposition, and nobody is clear about the Sunni vote.
Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, who has staked much of his credibility on passage of the bill in its current form, recently declared that if the bill doesn’t pass, Iraq will not ask the Security Council to reauthorize the occupation and that U.S. forces will have to withdraw “immediately.” Of course, he may just be blowing smoke.
Regardless, it looks in many ways as if the U.S. strategy of creating a “sovereign” Iraqi government is finally catching up with it. In the past year or so, it has become clear that U.S. successes in Iraq are not limited to their effective use of defectors from and erstwhile allies of the Sunni insurgency to destroy it and are not dependent solely on Sadr’s attempt to stand down from direct confrontation and to regain control of his highly fractured organization.
Instead, they seem to have created some sort of constituency for themselves within the Iraqi government, coupled with an increasing legitimacy in the eyes of the public of the Iraqi army. After years of uselessly fetishizing the Iraqi government and “supporting” it while “opposing” Shi’a militias, even though they were largely the same thing, the United States seems to have gotten wiser.When the Iraqi Army took over Basra in the spring, they were apparently restrained from carrying out the sort of oppressive policing that various militias had been carrying out, and the population responded gratefully.
This sort of result raises the possibility that the United States, if it continues to work carefully and intelligently, could actually create a significant pro-American nucleus in the Iraqi government while simultaneously enhancing its ability to act as a state – if it has enough time. Is three years enough time, especially with a major stand-down of operations in 7 months? Who knows.
Obama or not, I have seen no reason to believe that the United States would wish to leave Iraq before assuring the retention of a significant political foothold in the government – nor, indeed, without securing basing rights and a permanent garrison.
But the Bush administration decided it wanted a consensual agreement with the Iraqi government, probably largely because of exaggerated fears that Obama would reverse course if he wasn’t locked in to staying; the result has been, as so often the case with these Mayberry Machiavellis, the opposite of what they intended. Once Iraqi nationalism and even public opinion (or at least political pandering to public opinion) was engaged, passage of an agreement of the kind that Bush wanted became politically impossible. First, they had to give on the bases and now on the timetable.
Although there is much scope for foot-dragging, I don’t believe the United States is in a position simply to ignore legal commitments to the Iraqi government, absent some stunning political development.
Unfortunately, any significant draw-down in Iraq will simply free up more troops for escalation in Afghanistan and Pakistan, where U.S. depredations are significantly worse and where more troops will mean more problems.
Posted at 10:43 am.