In this context, they offer two things we must do and one thing we must not do.
With the Bush administration now working out an agreement on having American troops out by 2012, understanding how this withdrawal will proceed is vital. Basra is as an example of what an exit strategy might look like — and of the dangers of getting it wrong.
After the 2003 invasion, control over southern Iraq was handed over to British forces. Without adequate troops to protect the population, security in Basra deteriorated, the British withdrew and Shiite militias took control. In late March of this year, Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki launched an offensive in Basra to clear the city of militias, but the Iraqi Army quickly got bogged down. American special operations forces and combat advisers reinforced Iraqi units, providing crucial air and fire support and detailed intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance. As a result, Iraqi security forces turned the tide and now control the city.
The lesson of Basra is clear: a rapid withdrawal risks a resurgence of violence, but a responsible drawdown and a reorientation of the mission away from combat and toward advising Iraqi forces stand a good chance of advancing our interests in Iraq at acceptable cost.
Under this model, embedded military advisers would provide just enough help to give Iraqis what they need on the battlefield, but not so much that it stymies their development and perpetuates a view of Western occupation. Yet this transition is risky. Security gains could come undone if Iraqis fail to strike political deals on elections, oil revenues and disputed territories. Sectarian conflict could also reignite if the Shiite-dominated government fails to accommodate the predominantly Sunni
“Sons of Iraq,” the 100,000 security volunteers, many former insurgents, who have taken up arms against Al Qaeda.
The biggest challenge America will face is our rapidly diminishing leverage. Iraq’s
government is increasingly asserting sovereignty, demanding a new bilateral security relationship with the United States with more constraints on how American forces operate — and limits on how long they can stay. Mr. Maliki and his advisers have inflated confidence in the ability of the Iraqi forces to maintain security that has reduced our influence. This is apparent in the negotiations over a United States-Iraq security framework. The draft pact agreed to last month seems likely to establish a timeline for withdrawing American forces and moving from a lead combat role to a support role, but it asks little of Iraqis in return for continued assistance through 2011 and beyond.
First, we must adopt a policy of strategic conditionality at the presidential level. For two years, the perception of an American blank check has been reinforced by regular video conferences in which President Bush has assured Mr. Maliki of his unwavering support. This has to change. The next president must make it clear that we do not endorse a particular set of Iraqi leaders, but rather the system as a whole, and thus our financial and military support is contingent upon progress toward political accommodation and improved governance. Most Iraqi leaders want continued security assurances, technical support for Iraqi ministries and help in renegotiating
debt obligations and other financial liabilities. This support should be tied directly toward governmental progress.
Second, we must exploit our still-significant leverage over Iraq’s security forces. While Mr. Maliki and others may be overconfident, the truth is that recent Iraqi operations in Basra, Sadr City and Mosul would not have succeeded without American military support. Underneath their rhetoric, most Iraqi leaders — civilian
and military — understand they are not able to provide domestic order, combat terrorism or deter external foes without some continued American support. There are disturbing reports that the Iraqi government has been cracking down on the Sons of Iraq and stalling their integration into the Iraqi security forces. If Mr. Maliki persists in pursuing this sectarian agenda, our support — including technical advice and weapons sales — should be limited accordingly.
Last, it is vital that the next president not send a signal that he hopes to establish an enduring Korea-style presence in Iraq. Most Iraqi leaders want continued American military support for several years, but do not want a permanent presence beyond the minimum advisory effort. If the next administration tries to lay the groundwork for an indefinite footprint, it will be forced to give in to all sorts of Iraqi demands.