The Uncertain Security Situation in Iraq

  • Trends in Violence, Casualties, and Iraqi Perceptions
    Feb 17, 2010

    The Uncertain Security Situation in Iraq

    The United States cannot win a war if it loses the peace. It cannot have a meaningful capability to fight even one major regional contingency unless it has enough strategic patience to create a State that has lasting security and stability, and it has not really won unless it has created a strategic partner – rather than simply having withdrawn.

    As yet, all of the tactical victories made by the US, Allied, and Iraqi forces have only won Iraq the opportunity to meet the challenges posed by security, political accommodation, civil governance and rule of law, reconstruction, and economic development. The security situation remains problematic, and much depends upon both the outcome of the coming election on March 7th and upon the quality of the new Iraqi government that emerges

    The risks involved are complex, and involve a wide range of ethnic, sectarian and regional issues. The broad patterns are clear from recent US reporting, however, and are presented in a new report by the Burke Chair entitled The Uncertain Security Situation in Iraq: Trends in Violence, Casualties, and Iraqi Perceptions. This report is available on the CSIS web site at

    The Need for a Lasting Strategic Partnership

    Americans need to understand just how serious the risks still are in Iraq.  Much depends on the degree to which the US provides continued aid and assistance during the critical transition period throughout the next decade. The period from 2010 to 2014 will be particularly critical in determining Iraq’s future and whether a US-Iraqi strategic partnership will emerge that serves both Iraqi and US interests.

    The US-Iraqi Strategic Framework Agreement (SFA) that the United States signed with Iraq on November 17, 2008, provides a potential basis for such a partnership. It describes areas for long-term cooperation “to support the success of the political process, reinforcing national reconciliation within the framework of a unified and federal Iraq, and to build a diversified and advanced economy that insures the integration of Iraq into the international economy.”

    It also states that this long-term relationship will, “contribute to the strengthening and development of democracy in Iraq, as well as ensuring that Iraq will assume full responsibility for its security, the safety of its people, and maintaining peace within Iraq and among the countries of the region.” It provides seven detailed sections outlining the basis for, “political and diplomatic cooperation, defense and security cooperation, cultural cooperation, economic and energy cooperation, health and environment cooperation, information and communications cooperation, and law enforcement and judicial cooperation.”

    There is no way to be certain, however, how real the US and Iraqi cooperation called for in this Strategic Frame Work Agreement will become unless the US is willing to help Iraq meet the kind of challenges posed by the continuing level of violence in Iraq. This requires a new form of partnership whereby Iraq is in the lead, but in which both nations work together over the next decade to make Iraq a nation that can play a major role in ensuring the stability of the Gulf and the world’s energy supply.  If they do not, the words of the strategic agreement will remain simply words.

    Such a US effort is essential to helping Iraq reach the level of security and stability it has lacked since the late 1970s. Success requires US policymakers to focus on making the Strategic Framework Agreement a central part of US policy, rather than focus on "responsible withdrawal."  It requires them to plan on providing the necessary staff and aid resources through 2014 and beyond. It requires a “whole of government approach” by the Department of State, the Department of Defense, other Departments and agencies, and the US Congress.

    Given the challenges involved, both the civil and military advisory elements of such a team must also be in place well before US military forces withdraw from Iraq at the end of 2011. The US country team must be provided the budget it needs to act, and there must be an integrated civil-military effort with a new mix of advisors, and a new approach to aid that helps Iraq make the transition to full management and funding of its programs.

    The Strategic Value of Winning the Peace

    Many American policymakers understand these requirements, but there are political forces in the US that want to end aid to Iraq, and to avoid providing the required assistance and commitments necessary to help it survive the coming years. Moreover, no US civil-military effort in Iraq can be successful unless it has the sustained support of the American people, the Congress, the media, various think tanks, and other "influencers" of domestic public opinion. This is especially true at a time when the US is caught up in the "AfPak" conflict, a domestic/international financial crisis, Iran, North Korea, and so many other competing problems and demands.

    The case for such a US effort in support of the strategic partnership is solid, but it needs to be communicated: US aid will help create a democracy that serves both Iraq’s needs and serves as an example of the reforms that can checkmate extremism and terrorism. It will counter the legacy of US invasion whose aftermath was badly planned and badly managed. Iraq will soon be a nation of over 30 million people and much of the region and the world will judge the US by whether it aids them or abandons them.

    More directly, a strong and stable Iraq will be a major bulwark against Iran without threatening Iran or serving as a new source of tension in the region. Iraq will have no reason to go back to the regional ambitions that have helped destabilize the Gulf since British withdrawal in the 1960s. Iraq will have every incentive to work with the GCC states, Turkey, Jordan, and its other neighbors, as well as with the US and USCENTCOM in reshaping the US strategic posture in the Gulf. Iraq will become a moderate voice in the struggle for the future of Islam, and sectarian and ethnic struggles in the region. It will be a moderate voice in dealing in Arab-Israeli tensions and the search for a stable peace.

    Making Iraq secure affects the security of the entire Gulf – a region that has nearly 60% of the world’s proven oil reserves and some 40% of its gas.  Iraq has at least 9% of the world’s proven resources, and almost certainly will have a substantially higher percentage once its reserves are fully explored – after some 30 years of conflict and civil disorder.

    The Energy Information Agency (EIA) of the Department of Energy projects that a stable Iraq will increase its petroleum production from 2.5 million barrels per day (MMBD) in 2010 to 2.9 MMBD in 2015 and 5.0 MMBD in 2030 in its reference case projections – projections far more conservative than many made by Iraq and various oil companies.   It also projects that Iraqi output could be as high as 6.7 MM BD by 2030.  Helping Iraq become a far larger oil producer and exporter will limit world oil prices and reduce the cost of US energy imports. More broadly, it will help ensure the stability of a global economy that is increasingly critical to US economic growth and prosperity.

    US policy towards Iraq must also be honest about future US dependence on energy imports. It is easy to talk about US energy independence: every Administration since the Ford Administration has come to office talking about reducing dependence on imports. The Obama Administration is no exception, but forecasts of its efforts – and of Congressional efforts to date -- do not promise more success than the efforts of its predecessors.  

    Certainly, the Department of Energy’s forecasts leave the US heavily dependent on direct petroleum imports through 2030 – the furthest date any credible projections can be made.  Even in the most favorable case, the US will still be critically dependent on direct petroleum imports through 2030.  Moreover, the assumptions in the EIA estimates do not reflect two critical aspects of world US import dependence. First, the US makes major indirect imports of petroleum in the form of heavy manufactured goods that are made using petroleum imported from the Gulf. Second, the health and strength of the US economy is becoming steadily more dependent on the health and strength of a global economy where many key trading partners are projected to remain far more dependent on oil imports than the US.

    In short, the levels of violence in Iraq are a warning the US must heed. “Responsible withdrawal” is not enough. The US must be ready to provide a major aid and advisory effort for years after all US forces leave at the end of 2011.  Success in achieving critical US national strategic objectives is well worth the limited cost of continued American support. Failure will mean that the U.S.-led invasion of 2003 will have turned from a military victory to a grand strategic defeat. History has shown us that nations will remember how an occupying or invading country left, and what it left behind, for decades after its departure. The United States cannot change the past, but it can help shape the future.


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Anthony H. Cordesman