US-Iraq Challenges in 2008

The Pentagon’s December 2007 report to Congress, “Measuring Stability and Security in Iraq,” paints a mixed picture.  It indicates that the surge has reduced violence, Iraqis have helped stabilize their country, and Iraq’s economy is improving.  But the challenges ahead are daunting if the US wants an Iraq that satisfies the administration’s goal.

President Bush’s goal is a “unified, democratic and federal Iraq that can govern, defend and sustain itself and is an ally in the war on terror.”  The 2007 surge, the “New Way Forward Strategy,” has created a stable environment for tackling five challenges critical to Bush’s goal: provide lasting stability, achieve real political objectives, cut unemployment, improve the delivery of essential services and keep the neighbors from being unhelpful. 

It’s noteworthy, and perhaps not by accident, that retired Army General Barry McCaffrey published his own Iraq assessment the day the Pentagon released its report.  McCaffrey, who has periodically made such reports based on extensive in-country interviews, left the Army in 1996 to become President Clinton’s drug czar and is a likely candidate for a senior position in a future administration.

Juxtaposing the Pentagon’s assessment with General McCaffrey’s fresh views arguably provides a balanced perspective of the President’s 2008 Iraq challenges and the situation he will pass to his replacement.

The first challenge is to ensure lasting stability.  General McCaffrey states that reduced levels of violence are an “unmistakable new reality” and attributes that trend to General David Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker for their “brilliant collective leadership.” 

The number of security incidents has fallen to levels not seen since the summer of 2005.  Overall civilian casualties, enemy attacks and total improvised explosive device attacks are radically down.  In fact, US troop deaths declined to 37 last month and 13 so far in December from 126 in May.

The Pentagon report claims “tactical and operational momentum has been achieved” in security.  This is attributed to a number of factors, not just the summer’s infusion of 30,000 surge troops. 

The tribal awakening movement shares some credit.  Local sheikhs — Sunni and Shi’a — are cooperating with the coalition to improve security by forming neighborhood watch groups called Concerned Local Citizens.  Other violence reducing factors include the aggressive stance taken by US forces against Al Qaeda and militia extremists, the ceasefire called by cleric Muqtada al-Sadr’s Jaysh al-Mahdi militia and the increased capability of the Iraqi security forces.

The US must sustain stability as Iraqi security forces assume more responsibility.  To date, security control for nine of the eighteen provinces has been turned over to Iraq.

The second challenge is to achieve real political objectives. The Pentagon report acknowledges that Iraq’s national “legislation has been disappointing.” It confirms some progress has been made on the De-Ba’athification law and a law establishing a framework for continued bilateral cooperation with the US.

McCaffrey determined from his interviews that “there is widespread disbelief that the Iraqi government can bring the country together.”  He believes the “successful re-constitution of local and provincial government” is key to “creating any possible form of functioning Iraqi state.” 

Part of the problem, according to McCaffrey, is that there “is no leadership that can speak for all the Sunnis” and “there is no clear emerging nation-wide Shi’a leadership for their 60 percent of the population.” 

Iraq’s politicians must fix their dysfunctional central government.  “It is entirely credible,” McCaffrey says, “that a functioning Iraqi state will slowly emerge from the bottom up.” 

The third challenge is economic.  Iraq’s economy “continues to improve and overcome many challenges to stability and growth,” according to the Pentagon report.  Real gross domestic product increased 6.3 percent in 2007, inflation fell, and crude oil production and oil exports are “higher than during the same period in 2006.” 

This good economic news is off-set by 17.6 percent unemployment and 38.1 percent underemployment which fuels violence.  These figures correspond with McCaffrey’s findings.

The report states the “key to resolving long-term unemployment is private sector investment.” That explains the establishment of an Iraqi loan program to promote small businesses and US programs that create temporary jobs such as USAID’s Community Stabilization Programs. 

One source for more jobs could be agriculture.  But Iraq’s agricultural system is “under-resourced and poorly managed,” McCaffrey concludes.  “It potentially could feed the population,” claims the general, “and again become a source of export currency earnings.”

The US must help Iraq create long-term, private sector jobs which can form the basis for a bright economic future.  

The fourth challenge is to improve essential services.  The Pentagon report agrees that improving the availability of basic services “could help improve the public’s confidence in the government.” 

Electricity output has increased 14 percent over production rates the prior year.  The problem is that power consumption out paces increased production because citizens are buying electricity hungry appliances like air conditioners.   The average Baghdad civilian has power only 12.7 hours per day. 

There are numerous water and sewer projects and the US has completed 85 of 142 primary healthcare centers but only 39 are operating because of the lack of medical staff or sectarian agendas with the Ministry of Health. 

Iraq requires more infrastructure and stepped-up services but this will require sustained stability, more money and less sectarianism.

The fifth challenge is to keep Iraq’s neighbors at bay.  Iran tops the list.

Iranian President Ahmadinejad promised to cut off weapons, funding and other militia support.  But according to the Pentagon, “There has been no identified decrease in Iranian training and funding of illegal Shi’a militants in Iraq.” The Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps continues to provide many of the explosives and ammunition used by Shi’a groups to attack coalition forces, states the report.

Syria is problematic.  Ninety percent of foreign killers find sanctuary and logistical support in Syria before entering Iraq. But the Pentagon report claims Syria has stemmed some flow of foreign terrorists and suicide bombers. 

Turkey is a problem for Iraq’s Kurds.  Since the mid-1980s, the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK) has attacked Turks from camps inside Iraq.  These attacks drew Turkish counterattacks and recently the US assisted the Turks with PKK targeting information which has strained relations for the US in Baghdad. 

The US must be tough on Iraq’s behalf to keep her neighbors from meddling with Baghdad’s internal affairs. 

“It is too late to decide the Iraqi exit strategy,” argues McCaffrey.  That opportunity is past.  Rather, the general believes the Bush administration’s best course of action is to prepare the next administration for success and that effort includes stubbornly attacking these five challenges until inauguration day 2009.