After seven years, the United States is in the final stages of exiting Iraq. Only 50,000 U.S. troops will remain by the end of August, but the country is far from stable. Nearly five months after the parliamentary elections, Iraq is gridlocked by political squabbling over who should be prime minister. The parliament has yet to elect a speaker and has postponed its session indefinitely. Iraqis are frustrated by the failure of their leaders to make real progress, the economy is in shambles, and violence is once again rising. 

In a Q&A, Marina Ottaway examines what the drawdown of U.S. forces will mean for the stability of the country, U.S. influence in the region, and whether Iraq is in a better position than it was prior to the 2003 invasion. Despite significant improvements in Iraq’s security forces, military means will not be enough to maintain domestic security. “The most important thing going forward is to ensure political agreements are reached. This will help prevent conflict and diminish the need to use the Iraqi military to secure peace.”

 

How will the lack of a new government in Iraq complicate the U.S. withdrawal? Is there a potential for the timetable to be delayed if violence rises or political turmoil increases?

The United States will draw down its troop level to 50,000 by the end of August despite the unfavorable political situation in Iraq. It’s essentially guaranteed that there will not be a government in place in Baghdad by this time, but the decisions charting the withdrawal have already been made.  

The chances that Washington will slow down the pace of withdrawal are extremely remote—it would take a catastrophe to alter the current course. Barring a major outbreak of violence the benchmark for troop levels will be met, but without a government in place it is harder for the United States to declare victory. President Obama will not be able to claim that the lower number of troops indicates a successful transition for Iraq and thus is deprived of the chance to take more credit for Iraq’s democratic development. 

There is a possibility, however, that the pullout slows down after the end of August as the Obama administration will want to demonstrate its commitment to building a stable Iraq. According to the security agreement with Iraq, the last American troops must leave the country by the end of 2011, but the United States could reduce the pace of withdrawal for a time. It cannot, however, delay the withdrawal too long. It is essentially a matter of logistics as it takes time to get troops and equipment out of the country. 

 

What will change on the ground when the number of U.S. troops in the country falls below 50,000?

In the immediate term, this will not change the situation on the ground. It’s not as though 100,000 troops are being withdrawn overnight—at the height of the surge there were close to 165,000 and half of them have already left. The end of August will not mark a major transformation of the mission as the modifications really came earlier. 

U.S. troops previously went on patrols alongside Iraqi forces and were embedded in military units, but this doesn’t happen often anymore. American combat forces withdrew from Iraqi cities and were pulled back to their bases last year. Since Iraq does not have an air force, the United States would need to step in should Iraqi troops face open combat where they require air cover—although this has not happened recently. 

U.S. troops are now doing two things—training Iraqi forces and providing logistical support. These are the most important aspects of the present mission and both will continue. 

The one place where the lower number of troops could make a difference is on the border between Kurdistan and Iraq. American forces have been active in those areas and their presence has prevented the escalation of fighting and in some cases enabled negotiations on local issues. Still, the United States should have more than enough troops to keep playing this role. 

 

How should Iraq ensure security with less involvement from the United States? 

There is a general consensus within the U.S. military that Iraq’s security forces continue to make solid progress and they are better prepared to maintain internal stability. But there are still persistent weak points within the ranks—including their ability to handle the logistics of security operations.   

The real problem could be that Iraq’s internal infighting threatens the military’s cohesion. Iraq’s security forces are unlikely to fight an external enemy in the near future. It’s not as though Iraq doesn’t have foreign rivals—Iran will keep causing troubles and arming militias—but it is highly doubtful that Iraq will have to fight a war with any of its neighbors. 

The security operations in which the Iraqi troops will be engaged are operations to maintain domestic security. Iraqi troops will need to step between civil factions and preserve peace between different groups of Iraqis. If domestic conflict escalates, security forces risk splitting along sectarian lines. While there is a growing level of professionalism in the ranks, a civil war or similar situation would seriously test the military’s cohesion.  

But as in all countries, military means will not be enough to maintain domestic security. Military operations or even police actions are solutions of last resort. The most important thing going forward is to ensure political agreements are reached. This will help prevent conflict and diminish the need to use the Iraqi military to secure peace. 

This is truly the major challenge. Right now, political negotiations over the formation of a new government have reached a stalemate. Rising frustration with the failure of Iraq’s leaders to make progress has resulted in an increase in the level of violence—nothing overly dramatic so far, but violence is on the rise. 

 

How much influence does the United States have over Iraq’s internal politics? Will U.S. leverage decline with the troop withdrawal? 

People in Washington are wondering how much influence the United States will lose following the withdrawal. The administration’s official position is that U.S. influence cannot be measured by the number of boots on the ground and that for every soldier withdrawn U.S. relevance does not necessarily go down—Washington still enjoys plenty of influence in Iraq. 

That is overly optimistic. It’s clear that the United States has already lost sway over Iraq’s internal politics. Washington tried to weigh in discreetly on the process of forming a new government. High-level visitors—Assistant Secretary Feltman, Vice President Biden, and most recently Admiral Mullen—have pressed Iraqi leaders in Baghdad but have been unable to speed up the formation of the government.  

The United States can advise and make suggestions, but it’s not in a position to force Baghdad to take the steps that Washington desires. Going forward, the amount of U.S. influence will greatly depend on whom the next prime minister is and the policies of the new Iraqi government. 

A major question is whether the security agreement between the two countries will be renegotiated. This will shape U.S. presence in Iraq in the coming years. Some believe that the Iraqis don’t want the Americans to leave and the United States will be able to maintain a military presence in Iraq. But, it will be extremely difficult for the next government—regardless of who’s in power—to say that it wants the Americans to stay and negotiate for the continued presence of a former occupying power. 

With this in mind, most U.S. troops will be out of Iraq by the end of 2011 and it’s unlikely the U.S. military bases will remain. 

 

What should the United States do moving forward to promote democracy in Iraq?

The United States has done what it can to promote democracy in Iraq. It’s now in Iraq’s hands. 

The United States helped set up a system in Iraq in which elections are the basis for forming a new government, and this will likely continue. While some people claim that elections are new to the region,  that is totally false. Many Arab countries hold elections—but they are merely used to confirm the power of the incumbent government. They are not a choice, but a reaffirmation of the power of the existing establishment. So the question going forward is not whether Iraqis will continue organizing elections, but what kind of elections they will organize.

The question for Iraq now is whether its recent election will confirm the power of Nouri al-Maliki—through maneuvers that are not wholly democratic—or establish the principle that a prime minister can be voted out of office. This is important for the future of democracy in the country and it would be a major step in the right direction, not just for Iraq, but for the region if a new prime minister was chosen. 

 

Will a smaller presence in Iraq impact U.S. influence in the Middle East?

The United States will continue to maintain a strong military presence in the region. There are troops in Kuwait, a naval base in Bahrain, an air force base in Qatar, and a naval presence in the Gulf. The pullout of Iraq does not end U.S. military presence in the region.  

But Washington’s regional influence will largely depend on the success of its diplomacy and how effectively it handles the problems of the Middle East. 

The overall situation in the Middle East is not encouraging. Tensions are rising between the United States and Turkey, Washington is confronting Iran, and there is little success in mediating the Middle East peace process. Arab countries want Washington to play a constructive role and provide solutions to the problems—right now, they don’t see good ideas and follow-through coming from the United States.  

 

How does the withdrawal from Iraq relate to the war in Afghanistan?

The withdrawal from Iraq is going to make it easier for the U.S. military to maintain the troop level in Afghanistan. We often forget how much stress the military has been under the last few years—the United States was overextended and struggled to field enough troops for two wars—and the drawdown from Iraq should help to relieve some of the pressure. The same units will not be redeployed again and again in both battlefields. Some units in Iraq are on their third deployment and the drawdown will give the military time to reconsolidate itself.

 

How successful was the U.S. war in Iraq? Is Iraq in a better position now than it was when the United States invaded in 2003? 

This is a question historians will debate for decades as there are clearly conflicting points of view. The Iraqis themselves are divided about the impact of the occupation. While there is little nostalgia for Saddam Hussein, not all Iraqis feel they are better off now than they were before the invasion in 2003. Many feel they are much worse off.

The economic situation remains disastrous and in many ways worse than it was before. There is little investment and most people live with only a few hours of electricity each day. 

It’s also important to analyze the regional implications. The Arab world is concerned that the United States unwittingly increased Iran’s influence. Under Hussein’s rule, Iraq was a powerful country that provided a counterbalance to Iran. 

Iraq will not return to this role for a long time. Even if Iraq survives the current political crisis and reemerges as a regional power, it will not happen tomorrow. Arab governments—particularly the Gulf countries—are terrified that Iran will become the hegemon of the region and so are not happy with the outcome of the U.S. intervention. 

The Sunni-Shia divide certainly comes into play. The United States has introduced a system in Iraq where power is passed through elections and Shias are the most numerous group in the country, hence the most powerful. But Arab governments are dominated by Sunnis. They are frightened by the idea of Shia power and the possibility that there is going to be collusion between Shias in Iran and Shias in Iraq. 

These fears are overblown—they are exaggerated because Iraqis are Arabs and Iranians are not. Additionally, Iranians already have problems trying to get what they want from Iraq. It is not only the United States that is losing influence in Iraqi politics—the political influence of Iran may well decrease in the years to come. 

Iran was close to the old leaders of the Iraqi Shia parties when they were in exile during Hussein’s era. It’s not clear that these leaders will continue to have power in their parties. Going into the Iraqi election the Iranians tried to unite the Shia parties, but instead the parties squabbled and went to the polls divided. During the election money was flooding in from Iran, Saudi Arabia, and other countries. So, the Iranians tried to influence the outcome of the elections but were unable to overcome the personal rivalries within Iraq.