The End of Operation Iraqi Freedom and DoD’s Future in Iraq

  • photo courtesy of The National Guard
    Sep 1, 2010

    Last night, President Barack Obama announced a formal end to the U.S. combat mission in Iraq. With roughly 50,000 Americans remaining behind until next year, it is certain that U.S. service personnel have not seen the end of hostile action. Now, however, the context will be different—occurring in the course of advising and assisting Iraqi Security Forces, hunting down dangerous extremists, or acting in self-defense.

    America’s war in Iraq might be over; Iraq’s war, however, is not. Uncertainty remains a key feature of its political and security future. The Iraqi national government continues to be mired in postelection political negotiations. While violence is significantly down when compared to the highs of the 2005–2007 civil war, it remains a constant threat to the safety of Iraqis and to the long-term security of Iraqi democracy.

    Uncertainty marks the future for the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) in Iraq as well. The president talked about an enduring security partnership between the United States and Iraq. However, without a more permanent partner government, there can be no clarity on the character or scale of DoD’s role in that partnership. Further, as Iraq is a fledgling democracy plagued by political intransigence and sharp ethno-religious divisions, U.S. authorities cannot discount the prospect of again having to prevent, limit, or halt civil conflict there in the future. Ultimately, Pentagon policymakers and planners must account for a range of routine and contingency responsibilities in Iraq to offset the risks associated with these key uncertainties.

    Q1: What is the practical significance for the U.S. military of the end of combat operations in Iraq?

    A1: As of today, U.S. forces begin “Operation New Dawn” in Iraq. This officially signifies an end to combat operations under the banner of the seven-and-a-half-year-old Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF) and fulfills President Obama’s February 2009 pledge to the American and Iraqi people that the U.S. combat mission in Iraq would end by August 31, 2010. Beginning today, the remaining 50,000 U.S. troops will focus on three continuing missions: (1) training, advising, and assisting the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF); (2) conducting targeted counterterrorism operations in partnership with the ISF; and (3) protecting U.S. government civilian and military efforts throughout the country. These missions will endure at least for the next 16 months, as U.S. forces draw down completely by December 31, 2011, to meet the requirements of the U.S.-Iraq Security Agreement and the president’s timetable for withdrawal. Change to this deadline would rely on a new security arrangement between the U.S. government and whatever new Iraqi government emerges from the postelection negotiations—talks that will soon enter their seventh month of stalemate. Indeed, any future formal defense relationship between the United States and Iraq will hinge on how important that goal is to the new Iraqi government.

    Some experts argue that U.S. forces relinquished major combat responsibilities months ago. Others argue that little has changed or will change in Iraq as Americans remain in harm’s way. Nonetheless, this formal repurposing of the remaining U.S. servicemen and women marks a new era for Iraq and U.S. efforts there. As a consequence, DoD officials would be well advised to consider a wide range of future defense-specific responsibilities in and around Iraq. Final outcomes there are far from certain.

    Q2: As the U.S. military withdraws, more than just troops and equipment will leave Iraq. What will happen to the programs that the U.S. government sponsored there under DoD authorities and with DoD funds?

    A2: As of June 30, 2010, Congress had appropriated almost $22 billion in Iraq reconstruction funding under the Iraqi Security Forces Fund and the Commander’s Emergency Response Program. All of this money was administered by DoD. Through those two programs, the U.S. military sponsored thousands of projects throughout the country. Anticipating that defense appropriations like this will dry up with the military’s complete withdrawal next year, DoD and commanders in the field continue to work with nondefense civilians to transition a number of programs from military to civilian hands, under the central authority of the U.S. Department of State and its chief of mission in Baghdad. No doubt any and all agencies operating in-country beyond 2012 will enjoy significantly less resource support and freedom of action than that enjoyed by the U.S. military throughout OIF. Along with the Iraqi government, U.S. officials are prioritizing programs and projects that are essential to Iraq’s future stability. Some reconstruction, development, and capacity-building programs will continue under U.S., Iraqi, or third-party auspices. Many lower-priority programs may simply go away.

    Q3: Going forward, what is the principal security risk associated with the military drawdown in Iraq, especially given a six-month stalemate in government formation after the March 7 election?

    A3: Obviously, this new era in U.S.-Iraq relations still carries with it significant risks. If risk in this context means the single greatest danger to a durable and representative Iraqi government that is fully integrated into its region and the wider global community, then the greatest has to be re-ignition of widespread civil conflict.

    The state-killing “war of all against all,” witnessed between 2005 and 2007, is unlikely to erupt again. Nonetheless, there are significant faultlines between and within Iraq’s distinct ethno-religious communities that at a minimum require monitoring, as direct U.S. influence over Iraq’s political future declines precipitously over the next year. The most dangerous triggers of renewed civil conflict may include: perceived government-ISF overreach; persistent Sunni extremism; resurgent Shi’a extremist violence; aggressive Kurdish separatism; and/or some catalytic combination of one or more of these triggers, coupled with a revived Sunni nationalist insurgency.

    Clearly, Iraq is still vulnerable to civil conflict. Struggles inside Iraq for greater political influence, for control over its natural resources, and/or for increased autonomy will remain key dangers to long-term success for the foreseeable future. All three merit detailed examination by U.S. policymakers. After all, violent insurgent and extremist groups— Sunni and Shi’a—remain; some active, some dormant. They range in capability and obviously pursue wildly divergent ends. Whether or not any of them are game changers remains to be seen. In addition, the unresolved territorial disputes between Kurdish Iraq and Arab Iraq remain and have already proven combustible.

    Religious extremists for sure will test the Iraqi government and its ability to protect Iraq’s citizens. The longer Iraq lingers without a seated coalition government or if government formation dissatisfies key actors or blocs, more groups on both sides of Iraq’s principal sectarian divide become likelier to turn to violence to secure their individual interests. The recent attacks across Iraq are emblematic in this regard. Two weeks ago, in the midst of an early U.S. media frenzy over “change of mission,” terrorist attacks killed scores of Iraqi Army recruits in Baghdad and several Iraqi judges in both Baghdad and Diyala provinces. And last week, 20-plus seemingly coordinated incidents from one end of the country to the other left many questioning the government and ISF’s ability to secure the level of internal security necessary if Iraq is to thrive after OIF. The Islamic State of Iraq, an al Qaeda affiliate, claimed responsibility for much of this violence.

    While violence is down significantly from civil war highs in 2006–2007, such events point to an Iraqi future where bloodshed nonetheless persists on some level; the scale ranging from spectacular high-profile coordinated attacks—as seen last Wednesday—to the type of lower-level irregular violence and crime that has become more commonplace since the end of the U.S. military surge. In the end, how the next Iraqi administration governs will determine whether or not violent substate actors are seen by various constituent communities as criminal agitators or legitimate defenders of vulnerable populations.

    Q4: General Ray Odierno has suggested that, barring complete collapse of the ISF, it is difficult to see the U.S. military being reinserted into Iraq’s internecine challenges. What then is the plausible range of future military missions the United States should be prepared to undertake in Iraq over the next five years?

    A4: Given a range of plausible Iraq futures, routine and contingency planning might focus on the U.S. military being involved in a wide spectrum of potential missions with respect to Iraq. With the seating of a new government in Baghdad, it will be important for U.S. and Iraqi officials to discuss and agree on the future U.S. presence (civilian and military) beyond 2012. That new posture, combined with a wider defense presence across the region, needs to underwrite a continuing U.S. ability to secure interests vis-à-vis Iraq, while supporting the responsible development of Iraq’s infant democracy.

    At a minimum, DoD might anticipate a number of new routine and persistent missions that are certain to survive in some form past 2011 with the agreement of the Iraqi government. DoD should plan for these missions as the Obama administration tries to shape the U.S. national dialogue on Iraq (to the extent one still exists) in ways that inure Americans to continued commitment there. These routine and persistent missions include: tactical and operational support to the ISF, such as security force assistance; provision of critical enablers like intelligence, reconnaissance, and surveillance products, intra-theater logistics, air mobility, and potentially fire support; and finally, direct U.S. military help securing Iraq’s airspace and territorial waters from outside intrusion. In addition, a low-visibility cooperative counterterrorism mission is certain to endure as well. Under more difficult circumstances—for example, if Iraq again reverts to civil conflict—DoD might be called on by the president to undertake limited contingency interventions to help Iraqis keep or make peace between rival communities, protect vulnerable Iraqi populations, and/or secure key facilities that are both vulnerable to damage and essential to Iraq’s political and economic viability and independence. These latter missions reflect what some view as the United States’ lingering moral responsibility to the Iraqi people.

    Planning should not be taken as an indication of certainty. It would, however, be prudent for defense and military officials to recognize that Iraq has persistently defied prediction. In short, though OIF is ending, Iraq’s war hasn’t ended. Thus, it will demand U.S. attention for some time to come.

    Stephanie Sanok is a senior fellow in the International Security Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C. Nathan Freier is also a senior fellow in the CSIS International Security Program, as well as a visiting professor at the U.S. Army War College’s Peacekeeping and Stability Operations Institute. He served in Iraq twice as a strategist with the Multi-National Force and Corps Headquarters during Operation Iraq Freedom.

    Critical Questions is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

    © 2010 by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. All rights reserved.