International Affairs Forum: What steps do you believe that we, the U.S., should be taking to help stabilize Iraq?
Mr. Brian Katulis: When we say ‘we’ we need to start talking about a new administration. It’s clear the pathway the Bush administration has carved out for itself and a new administration, to a certain extent, needs to make a clean break from that pathway for a number of different reasons, largely from the strategy of simply staying the course or continuing with this open ended commitment. One of the first and most important things we need to do is set some sort of horizon that sends signals that U.S. troops are departing and their departure will occur within a reasonable timeframe. That will be a key point for focusing the minds of different Iraqi leaders and leaders of different factions within Iraq to try to address some of the core issues that animate some of the conflicts still going on there. One of the key things the U.S. needs to do – and this is largely because of strategic costs, not only financial but the costs on our military readiness plus the opportunity costs in addressing other challenges – is that we need to begin to implement a responsible phased redeployment and combine that with intensified diplomatic efforts to help jump start Iraq’s political process.
The Center (for American Progress) has outlined a detailed plan called Strategic Reset (http://www.americanprogress.org/issues/2007/06/strategic_reset.html) and my colleague, Larry Korb, a Reagan administration official and Defense Department, has outlined the specific steps of the military logistics of a withdrawal in his report How to Redeploy (http://www.americanprogress.org/issues/2007/08/redeploy_report.html). In essence, the core argument is that there could be, in a phased in and responsible manner, redeployment of nearly all those U.S. troops from Iraq in a short period of time – much shorter than the conventional wisdom assumes. That would be essential to getting Iraq’s different security forces and factions to step up to the plate and take care of their own security.
Some people have designed core missions for a residual force that might be left behind in Iraq but I don’t know if that’s necessary. I think there is a way to do this that is careful and responsible but it has to have a clear horizon or end date in mind. This is essential for Iraqi self-interest and to send signals to the different Iraqi factions that we won’t stay there with an open ended commitment. Implementing that and having a clear message that we don’t intend to have permanent bases and occupy the country is important, and it is not really a message we’re hearing from the Bush administration loud and clear, particular as they try to get agreement on some sort of bilateral treaty or status of forces agreement.
IA-Forum: Iraq has experienced considerable political infighting. For example, the Sunni Arab bloc recently said it had suspended talks to rejoin the Shi'ite-led government after a disagreement over a cabinet post. How can the U.S. work effectively to reconcile some of these differences?
Mr. Katulis: I’m a little less confident that the U.S. alone can do much. I would rather look to more diverse models where we take into account the roles that the international bodies and the regional actors can play. One example is where the United Nations, and Stefan de Mistura in particular, has tried to help mediate some creative resolution solutions to aspects of Resolution 140 and the status of Kirkuk and the disputed territories.
We need begin to think more broadly than just what U.S. diplomats can do. They can play an important role particularly if we make this clean break or a reset of our policy by sending certain high profile individuals of the Lee Hamilton/James Baker caliber. Rather than have them just study the issue as they did in the Iraq Study Group, they should engage in some diplomacy but with an understanding that much of the effective diplomacy may be conducted by those who are not American, those who are either internationals dealing with discrete problems. The challenges in Iraq are multi-faceted and appear on many fronts and therefore it’s important to figure out the best combination of actors to address discrete challenges, whether it’s being inter-Shi’ite disputes in southern Iraq versus what’s going on in the central part of the country. It really depends on which aspect of internal conflicts we’re seeking to address.
A lot could be done in terms of thinking through more concretely of, in a way, a ‘diplomatic surge’ that some people have called rhetorically, that actually looks at and how we pragmatically address challenges. While the U.N. is doing some things on Kirkuk, the international community could do more things on other aspects of Iraq internal tensions.
IA-Forum: What are your thoughts on the effectiveness of the ‘surge’?
Mr. Katulis: My overall impression is that violence is down in part because of different tactics employed by U.S. forces but the numbers of troops matter but only in a limited extent because of presence has never been very large. Moreover, the surge essentially came at a moment where there was massive sectarian cleansing in the central part of the country, the Sunni actors had made a strategic political decision to turn against Al-Qaida, and the Sadrists had stood down in late August of last year. So there was a confluence of factors that I don’t think are necessarily tied to the ‘surge’ of what was a fairly small increase in U.S. troops. When you go back to the central point, the central premise that increased security would lead to political progress, I think that theory so far has not proved to be true because despite some pieces of legislation passed earlier this year, there still seems to be a great deal of stalemate and stasis on some key issues including the oil revenue sharing law. More importantly might be the promised Constitutional amendments which have fallen off of many people’s radar screen.
On all of these fronts, I don’t see substantial progress on the issue of how to share power among Iraqis. There had been some signs of hope but then hope was dashed, and now there is a complicated stalemate.
IA-Forum: Is there any particular issue that’s not receiving enough attention about Iraq?
Mr. Katulis: The issue of refugees and internally displaced people in the context of Iraq’s political processes, particularly the provincial elections discussed for later this year, that are likely to be postponed, and the national elections. Compare the situation now to where were in 2005, the last time Iraq had a round of elections. Iraq has been fundamentally changed in terms of its demographic composition of where people live. One in five to one in seven Iraqis currently do not live in places where they resided in 2002-2003 and that raises some serious questions about moving forward, and practical questions about the provincial elections in particular. When there are such large displacements occurring from 2005 to present, there’s the technical issue of how to get people to vote and broader questions as where they vote, in which provinces; what are they voting for, and could this possibly freeze into place some conceptions of what Iraq is and how power should be shared from the central to the provincial to the local government. Then there are political implications to consider and which types of candidates they would vote for.
How these issues are resolved is terribly important because there are millions of Iraqis in places now where they weren’t in 2005 when they last voted. The U.S. has had its fetish with elections in Iraq and moving forward without some timeline on resolving the core issues of power sharing between Iraqi factions. Moving headlong into elections without carefully answering some of these questions could be a big challenge.
Brian Katulis, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, is co-author of the Center's "Strategic Reset" plan for Iraq and the Middle East and is an advisor to the Center's Middle East Progress project. He is co-author of The Prosperity Agenda: What the World Wants from America and What We Need in Return, which will be published in July 2008.
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