24 February 2010

Ricks vs. Lynch. There Can Be Only One...

(H/T CNAS Twitter feed, Marc Lynch's Twitter feed)

Today, the milblogosphere was treated to a showdown between two Colossi of CNAS, Titans of Tactics, Sultans of Strategy.

In one corner, we have Pulitzer Prize-winning Tom Ricks, posting in the New York Times, who claims that US forces will likely remain in Iraq beyond the December 2011 deadline, albeit in vastly reduced numbers. In Ricks' opinion, Iraq is unraveling (on part XXIX right now), and might likely descend back into a civil war similar to what we saw in 2005, particularly after next month's national elections.

In the other corner, we have Marc Lynch, a Middle Eastern expert who used to blog at Abu Aardvark and has since moved to Foreign Policy Online. Mr. Lynch feels that the Obama administration is committed to complete withdrawal from Iraq, despite reports that General Odierno is drafting plans to stay in Iraq past 2011. In Mr. Lynch's opinion (and mine), plans of this nature are par for the course for military operations; successful military planners have to at least consider the worst-case scenarios. Interestingly enough, Lynch seems to echo Ricks' pessimism about Iraq, noting that he feels that the end state in Iraq will be certainly less-than-optimal, but not catastrophic, as Ricks believes.

Choice quotes from Tom Ricks:

All the existential questions that plagued Iraq before the surge remain unanswered. How will oil revenue be shared among the country’s major groups? What is to be the fundamental relationship between Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds? Will Iraq have a strong central government or be a loose confederation? And what will be the role of Iran (for my money, the biggest winner in the Iraq war thus far)?

Unfortunately, all of these questions have led to violence in the past, and could again just as the Obama administration’s timeline calls for troops to leave areas that are far from quiet. The plan this year is to pull out about 10,000 troops a month for five months, beginning in late spring. That will halve the American military presence, with the remainder (other than a “residual force” of unspecified size) scheduled to be withdrawn in 2011. The withdrawal plan was written on the assumption that the elections would be held late in 2009 or early in 2010. Under the plan, troop numbers would be kept level to ensure stability in a vulnerable period, especially if the Sunnis were to feel that the electoral process was unfair, or if they were not given a role in the new government commensurate with their success at the polls.

But given the changed timetable, just as Iraqi political leaders are struggling to form a new government, American military leaders will be distracted by the myriad tasks of supervising major troop movements. On top of that, the deeper the troop withdrawals go, the more potentially destabilizing they will be — because the first withdrawals will be made in areas that are considered more secure, or where Iraqi forces are deemed more reliable or evenhanded.

In addition, a continued American military presence could help Iraq move forward politically. No one there particularly likes having the Americans around, but many groups seem to trust the Americans as honest brokers. And there would be a moral, humanitarian and political benefit: Having American soldiers accompany Iraqi units may improve the behavior of Iraqi forces, discouraging relapses to Saddam Hussein-era abuses, or the use of force for private ends and feuds. Advisers not only instruct Iraqi commanders, they also monitor them.

And from Marc Lynch:

The drawdown will probably matter considerably less than people expect. With the new SOFA-defined rules of engagement, U.S. forces have already stopped doing many of the things associated with the "surge." The Iraqi response to American efforts on the de-Baathification circus demonstrate painfully clearly that the nearly 100,000 troops still in Iraq gave very little leverage on an issue which the U.S. at least publicly deemed vital -- a point made very effectively by Ambassador Hill at the Council on Foreign Relations last week. The sharp backlash against even the measured criticisms by U.S. officials offers an important lesson: Doing the sorts of assertive things which may please Obama's critics are highly likely to spark a negative reaction among Iraqis, generating more hostility to the U.S. role without actually accomplishing anything. The U.S. is wise to avoid them.

That doesn't mean that things are rosy. The de-Baathification circus has demonstrated the fragility of Iraqi institutions, and helped to reignite sectarian resentments and fears (many Sunnis feel targeted, while many Shia are being treated to an endless barrage of anti-Ba'athist electoral propaganda). There's very much a risk of long, drawn-out coalition talks after the election. It isn't certain how a transition from power will go, should Maliki's list lose, given the prime minister's efforts to centralize power in his office over the last few years. There may well be a spike in violence by frustrated losers in the elections. If there's massive fraud on election day, things could get ugly. The elections, already marred by the de-Baathification fiasco, may well end up producing a new Parliament and government which doesn't really change much. There are big, long-deferred issues to confront after the elections, such as the Article 140 referendum over Kirkuk.

But none of those issues would be resolved by an American effort to delay its military drawdown. They generally fall into the "sub-optimal" rather than the "catastrophic" category. An American decision to delay the drawdown would not likely be welcomed by Iraqis in the current political environment. Nor would it generate more leverage for the U.S. over internal Iraqi affairs. Iraq's future is not really about us, if it ever was -- not a function of American military levels, commitment, or caring, but rather of internal Iraqi power struggles and dynamics.

Although both bring up great points, I think the debate is irrelevant without considering the 2012 presidential election season--which kicks off right as the December 2011 deadline passes--as well as the American public's attitude towards Iraq. I would suspect that the voters might demand total withdrawal, but only time will tell.

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