Iraq: Hold And Build, Or Lose

Despite the violence of the past few weeks, it is Iraq that now risks becoming the "forgotten war." Iraq has become both a perceived "victory" and a war that many Americans and members of Congress would like to forget. As a result, we may rush toward the "exit" without a strategy -- and lose both the ongoing war and the peace that could follow.

It is all too easy to forget that we "won" in Vietnam. We left having defeated the Viet Cong, having forced North Vietnam to halt its offensives -- and having gotten a Nobel Prize for the settlement. We created something approaching a functioning democracy, a reasonable level of development, and Vietnamese forces that seemed able to defend both without our support. It only took a few years, however, to show how costly an exit without a strategy can be.

There are limits to what we can do in Iraq. We cannot force Iraqis into political accommodation. We cannot develop their economy for them. And we cannot act as a lasting substitute for effective Iraqi forces or the creation of local security and a rule of law. But there are steps we can and should take to complete the "clear, hold and build" strategy that has changed the war so dramatically since 2007.

First, we need to ensure that Iraq can finish "winning" and continue to "hold." We should make clear that we will be flexible about the speed and level of our withdrawal of U.S. forces if an elected Iraqi government needs a limited amount of added help to defeat al-Qaeda and establish national security. We should also make clear that U.S. military advisory teams, including the embedded advisers necessary to make Iraqi combat forces fully independent and effective, will stay as long as Iraq wants them. We should be prepared to maintain and strengthen our advisory teams to help Iraq develop effective police and a criminal justice system.

If necessary, we should provide military assistance and equipment until Iraq can emerge from the budget crisis triggered by the collapse of world oil prices -- a crisis that has sharply cut its planned budget to $58.6 billion from an anticipated $78 billion. The revenue shortfall has also forced a freeze on the expansion of Iraqi forces when the country needs some 60,000 recruits in the coming year and has delayed most major equipment purchases.

Second, we must help Iraq "build." U.S. help will steadily grow more important as the necessary transition from armed nation-building to post-conflict reconstruction occurs over the next three to four years. This means keeping our economic and governance advisers in place as long as Iraq wants them. It means keeping our Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRTs) in the field and replacing their military members with civilians. It means a major U.S. effort to support Iraq in dealing with both the International Monetary Fund and its debt and reparations problems. It might require carefully targeted economic aid in select areas. Iraq's budgetary and governance problems are solvable, but they will require years of additional aid and support.

Active U.S. diplomacy will be equally important in helping Iraq move toward political accommodation and minimizing the risk of new conflicts between Arabs and Kurds, Sunnis and Shiites, or local violence. It will be critical to working with a strong U.N. team, and it should involve doing everything possible to seek support from other Arab states, Turkey, and even (possibly) Iran.

The final dimension of the "hold" effort requires giving the highest possible priority to helping Iraq develop its oil fields and renovate and increase its export capabilities. This does not mean financial aid. It means recognizing that some 95 percent of the Iraqi government's revenue will come from oil exports over the next five years and that fixing the petroleum sector as quickly as possible is the only way for Iraq to obtain the money and government revenue that can hold the country together and fund security and stability.

Iraq can maintain and expand its petroleum exports only through major investment and the technology transfers that come from foreign oil companies. Progress cannot wait until Baghdad can pass perfect petroleum laws. Helping Iraq does not mean pushing it into contracts with American firms or those that are not to Iraq's clear advantage. It does mean giving U.S. firms and teamed U.S. and foreign oil company efforts proper support, and prioritizing open, competitive bidding managed by the Iraqi government. Without this, Iraq cannot find the money to help bridge its ethnic and sectarian divisions, unemployment will get even worse, and young men will turn back toward violence. Iraq will not be able to make use of its past aid, pay for key services such as education and medical care, improve its infrastructure, or attract other forms of investment. In the short term, Iraq has no other options.

Yes, some of these actions will cost U.S. lives and dollars. Such costs, though, will be far lower than the mid- to long-term cost of throwing away a high probability of leaving Iraq with lasting security and stability. The United States must find a way to leave Iraq that ensures the stability of the Persian Gulf -- a region with close to half of the world's known oil and gas reserves and where America's future credibility will be as critical to dealing with jihadist terrorism as is the war in Afghanistan and Pakistan. In strategic terms, Vietnam was always expendable. Iraq and the Gulf are not.

Anthony H. Cordesman, who holds the Arleigh A. Burke Chair in Strategy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.