Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki declaring a great victory.
Tomorrow's scheduled U.S. pullback from Iraqi cities has provoked quite a bit of anxious hand-wringing from American analysts and probably premature celebrations from Iraqi officials. While I'm writing about this today because I just can't resist the sweet entreaties of our beloved editorial team, I don't actually think it's that big a deal. American forces have been drawing down in line with the Status of Forces Agreement expectations for months now --- it's not like tomorrow all of the Americans will suddenly click the heels of their ruby slippers and vanish in a puff of smoke. Tomorrow's deadline is far more important symbolically than practically. And here, the Obama administration and General Odierno's team deserve a lot of credit for their careful, rigorous, and publicly affirmed adherence to the agreement.
It's true that there has been an increase in the number of high-profile, high-casualty attacks over the last few weeks. The thing about spoilers is that they try to spoil. The key questions are whether the attacks trigger sectarian mobilization and security dilemma dynamics, seriously undermine confidence in the state and its ability to provide security, or drive momentum towards wider conflict. There's a lot of anecdotal evidence of mounting popular anxiety, but very little evidence of those kinds of conflict dynamics kicking in. For what it's worth, both Iraqi and American officials seem confident -- and remember when the judgment of the commanders on the ground was supposed to be considered sacred writ?
I'm not particularly an optimist on these matters, any more than I was in the past -- but I also see a rapidly declining ability or need for the U.S. to manage these issues. I think that there are still very serious issues surrounding the integration of Sunnis into the emerging Iraqi state and political system -- not just the endlessly dragging integration of the Sons of Iraq into the security forces and civil administration, but the selective targeting of key Awakenings leaders and other ongoing complaints. I also think that some amount of the recent uptick in violence is driven by the disenchantment of some of these Awakenings men, either actively or passively. But it seems clear that Maliki has decided that he can get away with selective repression and co-optation of the various Sunni forces, and will only change his approach if he determines that the price is too high. Maybe he's wrong, maybe he's right -- but that's for Iraqis to determine, not Americans.
Iraqi politics are going to continue to face all kinds of problems, as every analyst under the moon has pointed out. The Arab-Kurd issue, the continuing problems with government capacity, budget problems, and a host of unresolved issues remain. I think that the refugee/IDP issue remains the largest unresolved and virtually untouched issue facing Iraq -- those millions of people uprooted from their homes by force or fear who have few prospects of returning to their original homes, are largely disenfranchised in the emerging Iraqi political system, and who are almost completely unserved by Iraqi state institutions. But slowing down the American drawdown would not materially improve any of these issues. The best thing the U.S. can do is to continue to demonstrate its clear, credible commitment to withdraw on the agreed-upon timeline, and do what it can to help Iraqis adjust to the new realities.
File Photo: AFP/Getty Images