The Troop Drawdown Could Be Costly for Iraq
by Michael Rubin
Today is a milestone in Iraq. Under the terms of the Strategic Framework Agreement, U.S. troops will withdraw from Iraqi cities. In retrospect, however, June 30 will likely mark another milestone: the end of the surge and the relative peace it brought to Iraq. In the past week, bombings in Baghdad, Mosul and near Kirkuk have killed almost 200 people. The worst is yet to come.
While the Strategic Framework Agreement was negotiated in the twilight of the Bush administration, President Barack Obama shaped the final deal. He campaigned on a time line to withdraw combat troops from Iraq, and his words impacted the negotiation.
Iraq has shown us time and again that military strength is the key to influence in other matters. Just look at the behavior of Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, Iraq's most influential Shiite cleric.
Under Saddam, Mr. Sistani was an independent religious mind, but he was hardly a bold voice. Like so many other Iraqis, he stayed alive by remaining silent. Only after Saddam's fall did he speak up. Though he is today a world-famous figure, the New York Times made its first mention of the ayatollah on April 4, 2003, five days before the fall of Baghdad.
Mr. Sistani is as much of a threat to Iran as he was to Saddam. In November 2003, he contradicted Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei when asked what night the holy month of Ramadan would end, a determination made by sighting the moon. Mr. Sistani said Tuesday, Mr. Khamenei said Wednesday.
To the West, this might be trivial, but it sent shock waves through Iran. How could the supreme leader claim ultimate political and religious authority over not only the Islamic Republic but all Shiites and be contradicted?
Perhaps this is why Iran bolstered its support for militias. When I visited Najaf in January 2004, I saw dark-clad militiamen on the streets outside Mr. Sistani's house. Mr. Sistani quieted until the following year, when U.S. forces retook the city.
Militias are not simply reactions to sectarian violence, nor are they spontaneous creations. They are tools used by political leaders to impose through force what is not in hearts and minds.
Because of both ham-fisted postwar reconstruction and neighboring state interference, militia and insurgent violence soared from 2004 through 2006. The fight became as much psychological as military.
Iranian and insurgent media declared the United States to be a paper tiger lacking staying power. The Baker-Hamilton Commission report underscored such perceptions. Al-Jazeera broadcast congressional lamentations of defeat throughout the region. Iranian intelligence told Iraqi officials that they might like the Americans better, but Iran would always be their neighbor and they best make an accommodation. Al Qaeda sounded similar themes in al-Anbar.
Then came President Bush's announcement that he would augment the U.S. presence. The surge was as much a psychological strategy as it was a military one. It proved our adversaries' propaganda wrong. Violence dropped. Iraq received a new chance to emerge as a stable, secure democracy.
By telegraphing a desire to leave, Mr. Obama reverses the dynamic. In effect, his strategy is an anti-surge. Troop numbers are not the issue. It is the projection of weakness. Not only Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki but Iraqi President Jalal Talabani and Kurdish leader Massoud Barzani have also reached out to the Islamic Republic in recent weeks.
In Cairo, Mr. Obama said the U.S. had no permanent designs on Iraq and declared, "We will support a secure and united Iraq as a partner, and never as a patron." Indeed. But until the Iraqi government is strong enough to monopolize independently the use of force, a vacuum will exist and the most violent factions will fill it.
Power and prestige matter. Withdrawal from Iraq's cities is good politics in Washington, but when premature and done under fire it may very well condemn Iraqis to repeat their past.