Iraq offers the Obama administration an extraordinary opportunity. Overall violence and American casualties have dropped remarkably since the surge began last year. Iraqi security forces have grown in size and effectiveness. American and Iraqi troops have inflicted a series of defeats on insurgents and militias. The slow but steady construction of a new post-Saddam Hussein state structure will lift the burden of securing Iraq against internal disorder from American forces in the next couple of years, if current trends continue.
The situation remains delicate, however, as Iraq moves into provincial elections in January and parliamentary elections at the end of 2009. Although Iraqi forces increasingly bear the burden of fighting (and, increasingly, peacekeeping), they will need continuing American support. The government of Iraq has recognized all these facts by forging the status of forces agreement with Washington, which was endorsed by the cabinet a week ago and sent to the Council of Representatives for approval.
The agreement encapsulates the basic reality in Iraq today: Iraq is an independent, sovereign state able to negotiate on an equal basis with the United States; Iraqis and Americans both want American troops to leave Iraq as quickly as possible and believe that a withdrawal will be feasible by 2011. Above all, the agreement highlights Iraq’s desire to become a strategic partner with the United States, an opportunity the Obama administration can seize.
Leaving aside the debate in America about what ties global Al Qaeda has to Al Qaeda in Iraq, Iraqis overwhelmingly think that they have indeed been fighting an arm of Osama bin Laden’s organization. Every major political grouping in Iraq rejects Al Qaeda and supports the fight against its ideology. Iraqis increasingly pride themselves on being the first Arab state to reject the terrorists.
This summer, leading members of Anbar Awakening, a group of Sunni leaders who have joined forces with the United States and the Shiite-led Baghdad government, circulated a memo about how they could help Afghans develop their own “awakenings” to fight Al Qaeda on their territory. As we look for allies in the struggle against Al Qaeda, Iraqis are our most natural and eager partners.
America and Iraq also have common interests vis-à-vis Iran. Iraqis want to remain independent of Tehran, as they have now demonstrated by signing the agreement with the United States over Iran’s vigorous objections. They want to avoid military conflict with Iran, and so does America. Iraqis share our fear that Iran may acquire nuclear weapons, which would threaten their independence. And they resent Iran’s efforts to maintain insurgent and terrorist cells that undermine their government.
Of course, the Iraqis recognize, as we do, that Iraq and Iran are natural trading partners and have a religious bond as majority Shiite. This may be to our benefit: the millions of Iranian pilgrims who will visit Iraqi holy sites at Najaf and Karbala over the coming years will take home a vision of a flourishing, peaceful, secular, religiously tolerant and democratic Muslim state.
The reintegration of Iraq into the Arab world is also under way. Many Arab states have already begun to open embassies in Baghdad. We should keep in mind that Iraq also shares interests with America regarding Saudi Arabia and Syria. Increasingly, Iraqi leaders speak quietly of replacing the Saudi kingdom as the dominant Arab state. Iraq also knows that Syria has allowed Al Qaeda fighters free passage across their common border for years, and has served as a staging base for Iranian support to Hezbollah in Lebanon. Washington and Baghdad have a common interest in persuading the Syrian regime to abandon its support of terror groups.
America will withdraw its forces from patrolling in Iraq and will significantly reduce the number of soldiers there over the coming years — that is not and never has been in question. The timing and nature of that withdrawal, however, is extremely delicate.
It is vital that we help see Iraq through during its year of elections, and avoid the temptation to “front-load” the withdrawal in 2009. It is equally vital that we develop a broader strategic relationship with Iraq using all elements of our national power in tandem with Iraq’s to pursue our common interests. President Obama has the chance to do more in Iraq than win the war. He can win the peace.
Frederick W. Kagan, a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and a former professor of military history at the United States Military Academy.