Tomorrow is the deadline for the exit of US Forces from the cities in Iraq, as per the details of the Status of Forces Agreement between the (then) Bush and Maliki governments.


Peter Feaver, writing in the Shadow Cabinet at Foreign Policy (h/t Andrew Sullivan), opines:

Starting this week, the parade of critical junctures in Iraq will accelerate. If the Iraqis go ahead with plans to put the SoFA to a national referendum, the parade could become a stampede. When even skeptical war critics like Fareed Zakaria are penning articles about “Victory in Iraq” that read almost like a Bush valedictory speech on the topic, the opportunity for a decent outcome in Iraq seems tantalizingly close. I hope we are not jeopardizing that outcome with a premature withdrawal.

There is no “tantalizing close”-ness to victory (”decent outcome”)  because what victory would be in this situation is not properly understood.  In contemporary warfare, as Thomas P.M. Barnett outlined in his 2004 classic The Pentagon’s New Map, there are (at least) two phases:  war and peace.  They are not perfectly separable in any specific moment but over the long term they clearly are recognizable.

The War phase is what the US wins.  It goes into Afghanistan in late 2001 and expels the Taliban/Al-Qaeda.  It goes into Iraq in 2003 and very quickly defeats the Iraq Army and overthrows the Baath regime.

The Peace (or Reconstruction/Stabilization) phase is much harder.  It is built primarily around the ability to create 1. economic opportunity and 2. legitimate political deals.

This second phase at minimum takes about 10 years.  Thomas Ricks, Feaver’s colleague, has said repeatedly that he thinks Iraq will be a 15-20 year commitment.  In Ricks’ analogy we are only entering Act IV of this V act tragedy.  Act I: The Invasion  Act II: The Rise of the Insurgency and the failure of the US to win the peace phase  3.  The Counterinsurgency (”Surge”)   4. What is about to happen now that the US pulls down and 5. Presumably some new state going forward

The (second) Iraq War started in 2003.  So 10 years (the minimum) is already 2013, four years away.  So no we are not tantalizingly close to four years from now.  And the decisions to pull out of the cities is part of a long term drawdown/exit from the country.  To think that victory (cough cough, decent outcome) is tantalizingly close or whatever linguistic expression one prefers (”victory is within reach”, is “around the corner”, etc) is to still think in terms of War.

Wars are won–in the old days anyway–with surrender treaties signed on battleships or in courthouses.  The Peace is not like that.  It’s a process.  It’s never finished.  Whatever else it is, The Peace, is not close (nor really faraway).  The Peace is either in a state of being realized or it is in a state of not being realized (and hence disintegrating with the social space being filled by criminal insurgent mafia-like elements).

What is the alternative really?  Keep 130,000 troops occupying a country for another 4 years or so?  Of course, to be the cynic for a moment, the reason the drawdown is happening is to lengthen the overall timeframe of participating in this conflict.  To use the lingo, to make it sustainable.  At the end of the day, if Americans aren’t dying in large numbers, then frankly the US citizenry doesn’t really care about the troops (and neither do the politicians) and there will be no great impetus to end logistics, consultation, air support, and the rest in Iraq.  Those efforts may poll badly, but there won’t be an organized large-scale political resistance to it either.

Sullivan responds to Feaver this way:

After three years of total fiasco, there has been a competent counter-insurgency operation with 130,000 foreign troops. In that time, the critical political deals that were the criteria for the surge’s alleged success were not made. Now, Maliki is bragging about throwing the Americans out, and looks as if he’s slowly acquiring the trappings of a Shiite tough guy. The Sunni resistance – not integrated into the security forces – will no doubt respond. The neocons will blame Obama; and he will either have to hunker down and face betrayal of the core reason for his candidacy or get out and watch the place explode again.

The competent counter-insurgency campaign such as it was had much more to do with buying off Sunni insurgent (then called tribesmen) and not the extra troops (aka “The Surge”).  But Sullivan is right that’s largely academic at this point as the important piece (see above) the political, was never made.  Unlike Sullivan, I don’t think the place is likely to explode again.

Here’s why. And this gets to why I think analyses like Feaver’s are so weak.  Those types of analysis are so focused on the US side of it to the exclusion of the locas themselves; there is no agency from the Iraqis.  Everything is determined simply by what the US does (or doesn’t do as the argument may be).  This is the neocon arrogance of American Hyperpower:  America has Hyperpower in winning wars, not in winning the peace.*  In this telling Iraqis are just passive receipients–or at “best” only exist to blow things up and subvert the US process towards peace and prosperity.  Andrew is certainly right that neocons will blame Obama no matter what, but that only proves (in my mind) that the neocon focus has always been on the wrong actors.

In the absence of the US filling the void left in the wake of the destruction of the Baath dictatorship, civil war raged.  That civil war was a political war–though it included ethnic (Arab v. Kurd) and religious elements (Shia v. Sunni).  But nature abhors a vacuum.  That vacuum was filled by the ensuing conflagration, which was purely predictable given sufficient knowledge of how these things play out–the Iraqi local circumstances filled in the details of that otherwise recognizable general pattern.

And that Civil War was won by the Shia.  Definitively.  Sunni insurgents will, going forward, continue to be able to land terrible attacks (including most likely the most recent ones), but it won’t change the political calculus.  They’ve lost.  Politically. They’ve lost the peace.

In fact the Sunnis realized precisely this point back in 2006–that they had lost–and therefore sided with the US as an attempt to force some kinds of deals to throw them a bone or two.  Those bones were mostly not tossed over by Maliki & Crew and some undoubtedly will return to violence but overall I don’t think it will be as bad as it was during the truly apocalyptic years of 2004-2006.  Then the Sunnis were fighting for their political life and had some (albeit small) hope of winning.  There is no such hope now. Some will fight I imagine and some last attempt to force some meager political concession from Maliki via bloodshed, but Maliki’s MO is mostly to harden/crackdown on such attempts.

Politically, Iraq post-Saddam only ever had one of two options:  break up into various component pieces (maybe 3 or four regions or separate countries) OR return to a dictatorship, this time under a Shi’i strongman.

If the Counterinsurgency did anything it likely shifted the balance towards Shia strongman. And that scenario of course raises the specter of Arab versus Kurdish violence–a thing we have seen in some spates here and there but largely obscured by the larger Shia-Kurd alliance from 2003 on.  The Kurds however have tasted freedom and self-governance over the past years and they will not roll over.

I’ve always believed the Iraqis themselves have driven events in that country–starting after the fall of Saddam. The US invasion catalyzed, if you like the elements, but the experiment is now running on its own.  The US military/political establishment–for all of the chatter in the US-centric American mediasphere–has really been on the sidelines for a long time now.  This deadline just makes more explicit what was pretty much already the case to begin with for some time.

Is a Shia strongman authoritarian state a decent outcome?  That’s the question to be asking because that at this point is probably the path of least violence.  It’s not politically savory in the US but tribes inevitably evolve to hierarchical states.  Somehow figuring out a way to prevent Arab (mostly Shia Arab at this point) versus Kurd violence I think is what the US can be doing–given that it is a strong ally of both regimes.  [For the purposes of this I think it’s fair to assume the Kurdish regional government is a de facto separate state/government if not a de jure one].

I’m not sure you could call that a decent outcome–not especially if you are a Sunni Iraqi.  Or say a Christian Iraqi.

But whatever the judgment on that question, the reality is the reality and Obama (and the US military) are not in the driver’s seat.  Best to recognize our very limited influence/staying power in the country and use it for some one or two important things (like I said defusing any possible Shia versus Kurdish conflict).


* Arguably the only place the US (and allies) won a peace in recent memory would be in the interventions in the Balkans Conflicts of the 90s.  Shaky to be sure, but so far it’s held.  Lost peaces include Haiti, Somalia, Iraq (twice), and Afghanistan.

Chris Dierkes, a candidate for Priestly Ordination in the Anglican Church of Canada, writes about the intersection between politics and religion in contemporary life at The League of Ordinary Gentlemen, where this essay was originally published as “Iraq June 30th.”