Past the Eleventh Hour: US Withdrawal from Iraq

US Navy/Michael A. Blaha
By Katherine Opoka

After eight months of political deadlock, the incumbent Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has been tasked with forming a new government in Iraq. The re-election of the Shiite leader has sparked fresh waves of scepticism internationally as his government’s ability to maintain security in the weakened Iraqi state has been questioned. Following the 7 March 2010 National Elections, the insurgency has persisted, once again threatening to ignite tensions and fuel sectarian conflict across Iraq. As Iraq enters the eleventh hour, what is the future of the fledgling state? 

This question needs urgent attention given American President, Barack Obama’s impending January 2012 withdrawal date of all remaining US Forces-Iraq (USF-I). The Iraqi Government may be new, but the problems are the same. After seven years of intense fighting, will the Iraqi Security Forces be able to get the job done when the Americans leave? How much further do they need to go, and what more can be done to ensure a stable Iraq?

Marc Lynch, Associate Professor of Political Science and International Affairs at George Washington University, claims that “Iraq is a political house of cards. There are so many unresolved issues and the risk of this house of cards collapsing is really quite high”. When it comes to the successful withdrawal of remaining US forces and the ability of the Iraqi Security Forces to maintain security, there are several outstanding issues to consider. For example, the new coalition has just over one year to deal with the Sons of Iraq’s programme, unemployment, the shattered economy, regional pressures and five million Iraqi refugees and displaced persons. The Obama Administration must urgently decide if the Iraqi Government, which is attempting to lead a country divided along religious and cultural lines, is able to function without the full support of the USF-I. 

Domestically, one of the primary issues al-Maliki will need to focus on is the future of the Sunni Sons of Iraq. The Institute for the Study of War released a report in February 2008, which concluded that the Son of Iraq’s Programme could only be a temporary solution to a permanent problem because it could not be maintained at the status quo. According to the study, the Sons of Iraq was an essential factor in the success of the surge. However, the Programme is “not a panacea”. It is essential for the Iraqi Government to satisfy the desires of the Sons of Iraq and remain open to the possible integration of former Sunni insurgents into the Iraqi military structure. This move will be crucial, because if there is no reconciliation between the primarily Shiite Iraqi Security Forces and the Sunni Sons of Iraq, what will happen when the US pay checks stop coming?

However, more importantly, al-Maliki will need to seek reconciliation within Iraq. Immediately after the announcement of the election results, roughly two-thirds of former Prime Minister Ayad Allawi’s National Movement (Iraqiya), walked out of parliament, claiming their demands had not been met. The walkout further highlights the Sunni minority’s ambivalence over the prospective new government outlined in the deal, which essentially ensures continued Shiite domination.

According to US Army Colonel Peter Mansoor, the likelihood of former Sunni insurgents rearming is quite high. He argues that “Sunnis may decide that if they do not get anything via the political process than it is time to go back to war”. There is a great danger that a justifiable sense of alienation and anger will translate into a return to violence.

In fact, Mohammed al-Shabib, Sheikh of the powerful Issawi tribe from Fallujah, claims that the Sunnis in the Anbar Province are tired of fighting, but their fatigue could easily subside if the al-Maliki Administration overstretches its hand. Al-Shabib states that “I worry that tempers are raised and something happens – a soldier starts shooting, civilians get killed – something like that could set off the insurgency”. The system is poised and ready for conflict, thus it is vital for al-Maliki to push forward, both with plans for reconciliation and in upholding past commitments to the Iraqi people and the US.

In addition to the plethora of domestic issues, the growing power of Iran in the region suggests a potential crisis on Iraq’s borders. As former US Ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker states, “it is a tough region and the neighbours are looking for payback time”. The regional influences on Iraq, which include Iran, Turkey and Syria, are counting on US withdrawal, for once the USF-I redeploy they will be there to fill the vacuum. 

After such a considerably high cost, the US must continue ahead, maintaining momentum and differing from complacency in Iraq. Recent operations, including the Battle of Palm Grove in the eastern Iraqi province of Diyala, where hundreds of Iraqi soldiers, US ground forces and American fighter planes attempted to combat a handful of insurgents, strongly indicate that the Iraqi Security Forces cannot win this fight alone.  Strategic and tactical support is still required from the USF-I. 

President Obama faces a dilemma. Recognising that this is his war to end, he must, however, remain flexible with the proposed withdrawal date, allowing an opportunity for the Iraqi Government to come together and the Iraqi Security Forces to mature. The Administration is aware of the situation on the ground, as evidenced by the recent The New York Times Op-Ed by US Vice President Joe Biden. He argues that “the Iraq Security Forces are not yet ready to operate fully on their own and we must continue to support them”. Yet despite committing to Iraq, the Obama Administration is bent on revolutionising the US role and mission, from military to civilian support (from Operation Iraqi Freedom to Operation New Dawn). 

Yet, at what cost is the US desire for transition from combat to civilian support?  If the Iraqi Government cannot stand up and the Iraqi Security Forces are still incapable of doing so, who else is there?  Who else will maintain security in Iraq?

Within the next year, Iraq will be faced with considerable challenges. While history will determine the formal end to US involvement in Iraq, classic counterinsurgency theory reveals that the only true exit strategy will depend upon political progress. The US Government must be wary of withdrawing US forces too soon, for the Iraqi Government has not yet won the competition for popular support. The final battles of the Iraq War will be political in nature and a strong US presence will be required to preserve security throughout the country while political issues are addressed.


Katherine Opoka recently graduated from King's College London with an MA in International Relations, and is currently participating in the International Conflict Resolution and Mediation Programme at the Tel Aviv University in Israel.  


10 December 2010


Photo Credit: US Navy/Michael A. Blaha