For nearly a year now, most of the articles written about Iraq by western observers and journalists have focused on the ongoing departure of American troops, drawing a gloomy picture of post-withdrawal Iraq at the end of this month. Their arguments are usually based on the insufficient readiness of Iraqi security forces, concerns about the return of sectarian violence, ethnic conflict between Arabs and Kurds, the instability that can be caused by unresolved political disagreements, and Iran’s increasing influence in Iraq filling the gap left by the withdrawal of American troops.
These observers often conclude that the national security interests of both the United States and Iraq require extend¬ing the Status of Forces Agreement and retaining a smaller but still substantial US military footprint in Iraq. What is puzzling is the pessimism of these analyses, the mixing and overlapping of Iraqi and US interests, and the level of ignorance of realities in Iraq.
It is a fact that the Iraqi armed forces do not have the readiness to defend Iraq against an external threat. It will take years to have an effective air force, air defense, navy, and ground combat forces with sufficient fire support. But what analysts miss is that no classic external military threat against Iraq is anticipated within the next few years. Yes, some neighbors may try to intervene in Iraq by supporting militant groups, proxies, terrorists, etc. But such a threat in any case cannot be dealt with by American troops. Iraqi security forces perform better in this area, as they do in maintaining internal security.
A return to sectarian violence is possible but not highly probable. Iraqis learned their lesson during the 2003-2008 period of sectarian violence and don’t want to repeat that experience. The campaigns and outcomes in the 2009 provincial elections and the 2010 national elections showed clearly that the majority of Iraqis, Sunni and Shiite, may vote for candidates from their own sect but would not vote for someone they perceive to be promoting a sectarian agenda or sectarian violence. Anyway, even if the least probable scenario emerges and sectarian violence starts again, American troops can do very little about it. At the height of sectarian violence, when the American troop contingent exceeded 140,000 combatants, they could not do much.
Kurdish parties played an important role alongside Iraqi opposition parties-in-exile during the Saddam Hussein era. After the toppling of Saddam’s regime in 2003, Kurds played a key role in drafting the 2005 Iraqi constitution. The federalism embodied in that constitution was perceived as the solution for the Kurdish problem in Iraq. But there remain unresolved issues that present national security challenges such as the future of Kirkuk, the future of the areas of common interest, the distribution of wealth, and the deployment of Kurdish Peshmerga troops outside the Kurdistan region.
American troops did play the role of arbitrator in 2009 in preventing security friction between Peshmerga and Iraqi security forces from developing into a political crisis. Their presence also had a psychological effect in easing the fears of some Iraqi factions. But in the bigger picture, they were not able to bring Kurds and Arabs to resolve their key differences. Nor could they facilitate Iraqi national reconciliation. There is no reason to believe that a smaller presence of American forces with fewer assets could do what a bigger and more resourceful troop presence could not do.
Much has been said about Iranian influence in Iraq and the danger that Iran will take over Iraq once the American troop presence is ended. This is an oversimplification of a complicated issue. Iraq suffers from intervention and intelligence penetration by neighbors and more distant countries. Americans troops are not counter-espionage forces. They could not solve this problem in the past, and they cannot solve it in the future. In fact, they are part of the problem. American troops on Iraqi territory render Iraq a "battlefield" with Iran–something Iraqis do not want. The only way Americans can help in this regard is by developing the capabilities of specialized Iraqi agencies. And this can be done far more effectively through training, equipping and intelligence-sharing under the Strategic Framework Agreement of 2008.
The departure of the last American combat units is a significant milestone that will end Iraqis’ concerns about sovereignty, enhance the legitimacy of the Iraqi government and create the right climate for Iraq to engage its neighbors. The withdrawal allows normalization of a solid strategic relationship between Iraq and the US based on the Strategic Framework Agreement. Lastly, while withdrawal could encourage insurgents to increase their attacks in the short term, it prevents them from using the occupation to justify their crimes, thereby positively impacting stability in the longer term.