Iraq After the Election

  • Meeting the Challenges of 2010
    Jul 6, 2010

    The attention focused on the Afghan conflict is more than justified by the uncertain course of that war, but this is no reason for the growing neglect of Iraq. Even the best outcome of the Afghan and Pakistan conflict cannot end the threat from terrorism and extremism. At best, it will diminish it locally as the threat shifts to other countries and areas.

    Iraq on the other hand is a major petroleum power, a key buffer to Iran, and plays a critical role in Gulf security and the flow of oil exports that is critical to both the US and the global economy. Accordingly, the Iraq War has a far more enduring importance to US strategic interests, and most importantly, can still be lost at the political and economic levels.

    It is one of the great ironies of the Iraq War that the primary threat to Iraqi security and stability is now the lack of unity among its democratically elected politicians, not its insurgents or its sectarian and ethnic tensions.  Although these latter threats remain real and immediate, Iraq now faces its greatest single threat from the lack of unity and personal ambitions of its own leaders.

    Moreover, this threat may only mutate, not end, even if Iraq’s leaders do move forward to create a national unity government. It will probably take at least another four months for new Ministers to establish the power relations among them, and gain enough experience to begin to be effective. This assumption also depends on their ability to work together effectively on any terms, rather than paralyze each other or treat their ministries as personal fiefdoms.

    In fairness to the Iraqis, some of these problems are the result of a miserably incompetent US-led effort at drafting a constitution that made elections lead to the rapid selection of leaders, and then created a power structure that allowed effective leadership. Like Afghanistan, the Iraqi constitution failed to find a workable balance between the powers of the executive and the legislature.  It failed to create the proper tools to control and allocate national funds, and it over-centralized power at the national government level relative to the provinces and local government. Regardless of the outcome of the current election, it will leave a legacy of lasting damage.

    It may well be the end of 2010 before the near-term impact of the Iraqi election-governance crisis is clear. Selecting leaders and ministers is, after all, only a prelude to finding out whether they are competent and serve the nation’s broader interests once they take office. There are other developments and trends, however, that provide insight into Iraq’s security and stability and deep structural challenges within its society, economy, and security forces.

    These trends are outlined in map and graphic form in a new report by the Burke Chair at CSIS entitled Iraq After the Election: Meeting the Challenges of 2010. This report can be downloaded from the CDIS web site at It raises several critical developments:

    • Trends in the insurgency and in sectarian and ethnic tensions.
    • The course of the insurgency and levels of violence.
    • Progress in the development of Iraqi security forces.
    • The impact of Iraq’s continuing budget crisis.
    • Progress and problems in developing Iraq’s petroleum sector.
    • Some of the key trends in its infrastructure problems.
    • The challenge Iraq faces because of the rapid phase down of foreign aid at a time when its economy remains in crisis.
    • Some of the key trends in US withdrawal from Iraq.

    None of the challenges described in this report mean that Iraq cannot succeed if its new leaders do not focus on the nation’s interest rather than their own. They are, however, a warning that Iraq will need continuing support and aid until it can expand its petroleum exports and rebuild other parts of its economy. It is a warning that Iraq will need continued aid and advice to develop its security forces to the point where they can truly replace US forces – a process severely inhibited by the budget crisis that began in 2009 and the recent political process.

    The trends in this report are also a warning of the need to build an effective Iraqi-US strategic partnership. This is analyzed in detail in a new CSIS book entitled "Iraq and the United States: Creating a Strategic Partnership."  It can be download from the CSIS web site at:,

    Hard copies can be ordered from the CSIS bookstore at

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Anthony H. Cordesman