Of "Instructors" and Interests in Iraq

by Reidar Visser | published August 22, 2011

The Obama administration repeatedly declares that it is “on track” to withdraw all US military forces from Iraq by the end of 2011, in keeping with candidate Barack Obama’s signature promise to “end the war in Iraq.” But, even as the White House avows this intention, policymakers in Washington repeatedly express their hope that the Iraqi government will ask some US troops, perhaps 10,000 or more, to stay past December. In an ideal world, US strategists would like the Iraqis to decide to extend the Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) signed in late 2008, which provides legal cover for the US military presence in post-invasion Iraq. A series of summertime developments in Iraq have now made it clear that no such straightforward extension is forthcoming.

First, in an official statement released on June 14, the Da‘wa Party that anchors the governing alliance of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki came out openly against prolonging the SOFA. In late July, Maliki went on to define the sort of ongoing deployment -- a limited number of military “instructors” -- that would be permitted. The Iraqi premier views such a presence as compatible with his desire to be seen as an Iraqi nationalist, and, crucially, he has determined that this arrangement, unlike a SOFA extension, does not require the consent of the Iraqi parliament. Finally, on August 2, a meeting of all key Iraqi leaders authorized Maliki to start negotiations with the United States over rules and regulations for the presence of these “instructors” starting in 2012.

In Washington, the lengthy Iraqi deliberations have been regarded with some exasperation, but the prevalent sense is that the December troop withdrawals will not, in fact, be complete.

New Realities

While the debate over a post-2011 US garrison might seem to be resolved, nettlesome questions remain for both the US and Iraq. Had Maliki requested a straightforward extension of the SOFA from Parliament, he might have prompted a clarifying legislative and public debate in Iraq about the exact reasons for keeping US forces in the country longer. In the event, the murkier solution of a bilateral agreement to keep “instructors” without any specific endorsement by Parliament raises a host of potential problems going forward. Above all, as of January 1, 2012, US forces in Iraq cannot take any action that cannot plausibly be described as “training.” This fact would seem to moot many of the arguments used by the US to justify an extended stay. Presumably, US forces would no longer be able to patrol the “trigger line” separating the (Arab-dominated) Iraqi army and Kurdish militias in the north-central region; clamp down on al-Qaeda remnants; or pursue groups described as “pro-Iranian militias.” There is an unspoken expectation, as well, that remaining US forces would provide security for the mega-embassy in Baghdad and the cadres of US diplomats based elsewhere. It is unclear how this mandate could be classified as “instruction.”

Further problems are likely to arise over the question of immunity from prosecution for US forces after 2011. In agreeing to the continued presence of “instructors,” many Iraqi politicians feel they have already compromised national pride. The collective memory of British interference in a sovereign Iraq is keen: The Portsmouth treaty of 1948, providing for continued British involvement in matters of Iraqi national defense, sparked the major uprising known as the wathba. Later, in 1958, public outcry over British advisers and air bases -- and the perception that London exercised political influence through these channels -- was a significant factor in bringing down the Iraqi monarchy. Many Iraqi legislators will want to ensure that Iraqis do not see US advisers and air bases as posing a similar threat to full Iraqi sovereignty. Indeed, politicians close to Maliki are already signaling that they will insist that US “instructors” be subject to Iraqi law. Washington, in turn, will have to consider the risk of having its military personnel exposed to the capriciousness of the maturing Iraqi legal system -- in a country that is likely to remain a war zone, at least to some degree.

Another obvious pitfall in the coming negotiations concerns the size and duration of the future US military encampment in Iraq. Again, with the rationale for the rump US presence so intimately connected to the idea of “instruction,” Iraqi leaders will be under pressure to delineate these matters within modest parameters. Ostensibly, the post-2011 mission of the “instructors” will focus on enhancing Iraqi capabilities in such areas as border monitoring, high-tech intelligence gathering and logistics. How many Americans does it take to teach Iraqis these things? There may be a loophole with reference to the fledgling Iraqi air force and navy, which are so undeveloped that even militantly nationalist politicians may acquiesce in large training contingents there.

Pseudo-Consensus

Ever since the days of the Bush administration, US policymakers have hoped that a group of “moderate” Iraqi politicians would coalesce behind the concept of a friendly long-term relationship with Washington. Such a bloc in Baghdad, the US strategists feel, would be an ally in the geopolitical struggles in the Gulf, not least vis-à-vis a resurgent Iran. But the nascent agreement over the “instructors” does not reflect the emergence of any such unified coalition in the Iraqi capital. To the contrary, in the late summer of 2011, the Iraqi political class is arguably more polarized than at any point since 2007, with at least one key player, the secular ‘Iraqiyya coalition, vacillating between participation in the Maliki government and calls for early elections. When agreement was reached in early August on permitting the “instructors” to stay, it was more a side effect of a power struggle between Iraqi players than a meeting of the minds on US-Iraqi relations. The competing forces remain as far apart as before.

Only the twin Kurdish parties forthrightly advocate for an open-ended security partnership with Washington. Their stance, at times, goes much further than the “instruction” mandate envisaged by the other leaders, referring to the “disputed territories” as a rationale for asking the Americans to stay. The disputed territories, by the Kurdish parties’ lights, are much larger than the oil-rich environs of Kirkuk, cutting a swathe across the country from Khanaqin in the east to Sinjar in the west. The Kurdish parties would like to annex as much of this land as possible to their autonomous domain in the north. The positions of the two other dominant political elements -- ‘Iraqiyya and the loose Shi‘i Islamist alliance that brought Maliki to a second premiership in 2010 -- are far more complicated. Both subscribe, in theory, to an Iraqi nationalist discourse in which it is natural to stress the concept of Iraqi sovereignty and thus seek to reduce foreign influence as much as possible. Both are also inclined to feign intense nationalism to stymie their political opponents, claiming to be more solicitous of national honor than their rivals, rather than seeking to reach compromises that could be portrayed as concessions to the US agenda in Iraq. By way of example, on August 8, only six days after the supposed agreement on American trainers, Hamid al-Mutlak of the Hiwar faction within Iraqiyya said his party would reject the idea that any US forces remain under “whatever designation.”

At the same time, at least some of the actors in the secular ‘Iraqiyya and Shi‘i Islamist camps have a tacit interest in keeping the Americans around for a little while longer. ‘Iraqiyya figures feel deeply betrayed by the US support for Maliki in the contest for the premiership after the March 7, 2010 parliamentary elections; they had reckoned Washington would back their own Iyad Allawi, who had emerged from the voting with the biggest delegation of legislators. Instead, the US encouraged a large post-election coalition, enabling Maliki to win the prime minister’s spot on the strength of a sectarian Shi‘i Islamist platform, with support from the Kurds as kingmakers. But the ‘Iraqiyya politicians still see a limited US presence in Iraq as a counterweight to Iranian influence in the country. Even more interesting is the position of Prime Minister Maliki. He clinched his second premiership on the basis of a Shi‘i super-alliance supported by Iran. Yet, time and time again, he has demonstrated a desire to shed the purely sectarian power base, preferring instead to build around his own smaller electoral coalition known as State of Law. Within this framework of intra-Shi‘i competition, it makes sense for Maliki to continue to construct an Iraqi army loyal to him, rather than to the Shi‘i alliance as a whole (and perhaps, by extension, its Iranian backer). The “instructors” fit right in to this program.

The summertime bargaining over the post-2011 US military presence must be seen as a temporary confluence of the otherwise diverging interests of the Kurds, ‘Iraqiyya and State of Law. It is not the birth of a pro-American coalition in Baghdad. Nonetheless, it seems quite clear that Maliki, by opening negotiations with Washington, has embarked on a project that Tehran did not endorse. Protests from other players in the Shi‘i Islamist camp have been vocal, including from the Islamic Supreme Council for Iraq, the party most often seen as coordinating with Iran. The Sadrists, who have been the most reliably outspoken opponents of the US presence in the Shi‘i Islamist ranks, at least in public, have also railed against the accord taking shape.

Emerging Pro-Americanism?

The early August decision to enter negotiations over a limited presence of US “instructors” after 2011 carries the hallmarks of post-invasion Iraqi politics: The various players are muddling through at the last minute. Washington can now be expected to seek a definition of “instruction” that safeguards its own interests in Iraq and the Gulf.

As for the Iraqi side of the equation, the question is whether the negotiations, successful or no, will be a centrifugal or centripetal force in the political climate. At present, the prospects for rapprochement seem dim. Rather than reach out pragmatically to the secular ‘Iraqiyya, Maliki’s long-term ambition seems to be the creation of a ruling party that is dominated by Shi‘i Islamists but speaks an Iraqi nationalist language and can win elections with a modicum of extra support in Sunni-majority areas. Having the Americans around may be useful to this project, at least for a while, as long as the “instructors” work to build a stronger praetorian guard for the State of Law coalition. But this scenario would not seem to require that Maliki seek a lasting “special relationship” with the United States and he does not seem to want one.

As for ‘Iraqiyya, its primary aim appears to be to avoid compromise with Maliki at any cost. This disposition leads ‘Iraqiyya politicians to assume many contradictory stances, such as their continued fraternization with proponents of decentralization of power among the Kurdish parties and the Supreme Council, despite their declared program of consolidation of a central state in Baghdad. While extending the US presence might seem to constitute a point of convergence for ‘Iraqiyya and State of Law, the real-world chances of such a parley seem slim as long as the personal animosity between Allawi and Maliki persists.

To bring the Kurds, Maliki and ‘Allawi together in a meaningful coalition would require that both the Kurds and ‘Allawi cut their ties with the Supreme Council and revert to their pre-2003 definition of federalism as applying only to Kurdistan rather than to all of Iraq: This move would enable ‘Iraqiyya to maintain good relations with the Kurds without sacrificing their party’s base, which is hostile to the expansive federalism possibilities inscribed in the 2005 Iraqi constitution. (The Supreme Council, aside from being perceived by many Iraqis as an Iranian cat’s paw, has periodically made noises about using the constitutional provisions to establish a “Shi‘i” super-province in the south of the country.) For his part, Maliki would need to get real about the viability of the “political majority” that he has been talking about as an alternative to a national unity government. Maliki has in mind a coalition of State of Law, the Kurds and Sunni Arab politicians outside ‘Iraqiyya. Parliamentary battles, however, have repeatedly proven that the numbers just do not add up. There are not enough deputies in Maliki’s putative “majority” to outvote the other Shi‘i Islamist parties and ‘Iraqiyya. The only realistic “political majority” for Maliki would involve ‘Iraqiyya (and, if need be, the Kurds), but he appears wary of taking this mental leap.

Over the past few months, Maliki has moved to downsize the cabinet, getting rid of unnecessary ministries of state without portfolio. These are steps in the right direction if the goal is to build a stronger executive less susceptible to regional meddling, but again there are problems concerning the overall aims of the players. To create a truly integrated government focused on Iraqi interests first, Maliki would need to ditch at least some of the more pro-Iranian figures from his coalition. ‘Allawi would need to abandon the idea of a strategic policy council, an idea that remains on the drawing board long after the government negotiations in 2010. Such a council, if it were to materialize, would function as a truce rather than a true integration of the cabinet. In the likely event that the council becomes a failure, it would only serve to deepen the conflict between Maliki and ‘Iraqiyya. A slimmed-down cabinet, focused on governance and purposely excluding some players, could conceivably one day find a common interest in a long-term military deal with the United States, but the road is long and winding. And, for the time being, there are no signs that the US has rethought its long-standing strategy of encouraging an oversized cabinet in which there is a portfolio for everyone save the Sadrists. Ironically, Washington’s approach to Iraqi politics, in addition to discouraging effective governance, may ultimately deny US policymakers their wish for a quasi-permanent military presence at the head of the Gulf.

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