An Iraqi Air Force Mi-17 helicopter takes off from Landing Zone Washington, in Baghdad’s International Zone, during the first night flight outside the air base at Taji since the new Iraqi Air Force was formed. Photo by William Lovelady, Multi-National Security Transition Command – Iraq Public Affairs.
I’ve argued that beyond the political patina of the Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) withdrawal deadline, training and equipment requirements will demand extended US involvement in Iraq. This relationship can be a boon for Iraq’s stability and American interests. For one example, a Reuters piece highlights US Explosive Ordnance Disposal advisors training their Iraqi counterparts in disarming bombs:
“I never feel nervous or scared. I work as if it’s not a bomb, just a stone,” said one Iraqi soldier who was practising controlling a bomb investigation robot.
The wobbly waist-high device, consisting of cameras and a mechanical arm mounted on mini tank treads, struggled to grip a piece of metal, the arm’s claw snapping at the air.
“If I think about the dangers I wouldn’t be able to work … one mistake and it’s all over,” added the soldier.
Despite the article’s mention of acceleration due to impending withdrawal, training EOD personnel and updating them with sophisticated and rapidly improving equipment is one of the necessities that will likely persist past 2011. This concept is also emphasized in quotes buried at the end of a story about a Utah Army National Guard Aviation Battalion deploying to support Iraqi Army operations:
While Earl isn’t looking forward to leaving his family in Logan, he is excited to see Iraqi troops starting to stand up for their own security.
“Maybe this thing won’t have to end like Vietnam,” he said. “Maybe we’re going to see a positive end to it.”
Just how long it will be before that end comes, though, remains unclear.
Former Iraqi defense official Nazar Janabi believes that Iraqi government officials who say they will hold the U.S. to its withdrawal deadline — which would have all American troops out of the country by the end of 2011 — are simply posturing in advance of January’s parliamentary elections.
“From close air support to medical evacuation to air transportation, we simply do not have these kinds of capabilities yet,” said Janabi, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy in Washington, D.C. “And there is no way these capabilities could be put together within the timeframe that the government is insisting on.”
He said that with proper military management, Iraq would still be four or five years from being able to handle most of its military obligations on its own.
“That’s if Iraq has proper planning,” Janabi said. “And that’s a big if.”
Given famously difficult Iraqi planning and bureaucracy, it’s indeed a massive “if.” In light of these support requirements, I believe Iraq will maintain a strong relationship with the US as long as America is willing and the arrangement is beneficial. This grants any US Administration leverage as it applies influence to counter Iran and maintain Iraq as a peaceful ally that does not export regional war and terrorism. It also reinforces America’s huge interest in Iraq’s stability and democratic political development.
To be sure, there are limits to US aid and partnership that are illustrated by depressing historical precedents. America’s alliance with the Saudis has gained benefits, but hasn’t stopped the export of radical ideology. Aid to Egypt supports a regime that beneficially crushed homegrown radical Islamic movements, but whose authoritarianism arguably feeds the rise of political Islam as a protest outlet. And aside from the popularly-mentioned CIA meddling in Iran over the politics of oil and the cold war, the relationships between leaders of pre-Khomeni Iran and the US were also characterized by some failed American attempts to nudge the regimes toward economic, political, and social reforms, along with with the Iranian elites’ self-contradicting hunger for independence, aid, and sales of military equipment.
According to Kenneth Pollack’s The Persian Puzzle, responsibility for the failure of benevolent reform policies in the last case lies with both Iran’s refusal to liberalize when change encroached on the status of the ruling class, and inconsistent US policy due to the changing and introspective nature of American politics. For example, the Eisenhower Administration took a coldly realpolitikal approach to Iranian relations, whereas Kennedy initially tried to tie the carrots of aid and military sales to reform benchmarks. Such inconsistent signals from different administrations failed to cement any well-intentioned progress. These examples provide lessons for any future American application of soft power in Iraq.
If the Obama Administration or subsequent administrations apply a disinterested approach for domestic political expediency, specifically a perception of wholesale withdrawal, an opportunity will be missed to both stabilize Iraq and possibly assist civic-minded Iraqis who want help instituting difficult controls on problems like corruption. And beyond that immediate goal, it could limit Iraq’s potential as an ally of America and a relatively liberal regional power. I’m not suggesting US involvement in the nefarious forms of colonialism or CIA coups; rather, using leverage via development requirements to continue arbitrating the transition to more transparent politics and stability.
Despite still-great numbers of displaced elite who fled the country, Iraq boasts a talented population and abundant natural wealth. There are strong secular and urban streaks that blend and compete with the more highly-publicized conservatively religious and tribal elements of society. Many Iraqis are fiercely independent, but many leaders also recognize the benefits of a long-term relationship with a superpower like America. In the mid-term, these benefits are immediately characterized by efforts to enable security via training and technology. The current and subsequent US Administrations should not be shy in asserting human rights, transparency, and anti-corruption goals, for specific examples, as preconditions for the extensive and extended US security assistance required by the new Iraq. Make no mistake, we’re going to be there a while, in one form or another. Let’s make the best of it.
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