INFORMATION MEMORANDUMTO: The Secretary of Defense-designate FROM: Matthew Sherman DATE: December 10, 2008 SUBJECT: Political Resets and U.S. Leverage in Iraq Over the next 12–18 months, the United States will draw down its military presence in Iraq, owing partly to mission success, partly to limits on U.S. capacities and partly to U.S.-Iraqi political dynamics. These political dynamics will shift throughout 2009 as both provincial and national elections transform Iraq’s political class. New leaders with new objectives will contend with one another amid a growing trend toward Iraqi nationalist assertion. While this may eventually strengthen Iraq’s ability to stand on its own, it could also lead to new fissures and new outbreaks of violence. Either way, Iraqi political flux will complicate our efforts to restructure the U.S. force posture in ways that advance our objectives. It is therefore critical that we use our remaining sources of assistance in a flexible, creative and sustainable manner to advance U.S. interests in a still unpredictable Iraq. This memo outlines the background of the political climate in Iraq and offers three key principles with which to shape our strategy. It argues for a more tailored approach to U.S. assistance in Iraq in light of shifting political realities. Background
The United States has not been fighting the same war against the same enemy in the same political and military environment for the past five years. Iraq’s political environment has changed in ways both subtle and profound through a series of political resets. We have often failed to anticipate these changes and adapt tactics and strategy to keep up with this fluid political and hence security environment in Iraq. It has cost us dearly not to recognize the incipient insurgency, the precursors to civil war, and the implications of significant shifts in communal balances in Iraq. It will cost us again if we fail to understand the changes just ahead at this critical phase.Iraq’s 2009 national elections will usher in its fifth government since 2003. In part as a result of these many transitions, the government of Iraq has not yet become fully institutionalized. Its basic processes and principles are still in molten form, and this indeterminacy is one of several reasons that Iraq’s major political communities vie with one another, and among themselves. The United States has an interest in how this struggle resolves itself: We seek an Iraq that is neither a threat nor a temptation to its neighbors, a unitary but federal state that can control its national territory and, ideally, an Iraq whose representative institutions may serve as a model for the region. Not all political outcomes in Iraq will produce this benign result, and the United States is not in a position to guarantee it. But we are in a position to influence it through our strategic assistance. Strategic assistance refers to a concerted effort, applied throughout the entire military and civilian chains of command, to help stand up effective Iraqi security forces, facilitate fair government and maintain a balance of power among sects. It covers strategic, operational and tactical levels of assistance to military forces and police. As American combat forces begin to stand down, strategic assistance constitutes a growing source of leverage to promote and institutionalize change. Indeed, America’s role in Iraq is now largely defined by its assistance in the form of military operations, but more importantly troop presence, reconstruction projects, training, equipping and mentoring of the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF), institutional capacity building, logistics, air support, and the lending of political legitimacy. If not applied correctly, however, this assistance can be manipulated by those pursuing personal or sectarian agendas in ways that are counterproductive to U.S. interests. Therefore, the time for blanket ISF spending has passed. We must instead think strategically about how to allocate finite resources in a diminishing window of influence. How we use U.S. political influence via strategic assistance could well be key to ensuring long-term equilibrium in Iraq. Cases and Lessons
We understand better today the relationship between the ever-changing Iraqi political landscape and U.S. efforts to train and equip reliable ISF because we have made several mistakes over the past five years. In the spring of 2003, we did not appreciate the extent to which enemies could quickly become allies, and allies quickly take on ambiguous or hostile roles. Three brief examples illustrate the point.The Special Police Commandos. Unconditional and undifferentiated U.S. support for any existing Iraqi government can be counterproductive because, in counterinsurgency campaigns, threat to existing authority often comes from within. The Iraqi Ministry of Interior’s Special Police Commandos (now known as the National Police) are proof of this principle. Initially fielded during the Iyad Allawi Interim Government in August 2004, the Commandos were an Iraqi creation. They were recruited among veterans of the former regime’s Special Forces and Republican Guard, and proved highly capable throughout the country as a Sunni force fighting a rising Sunni insurgency. However, the Sunni boycott of the January 2005 elections facilitated Shi‘a dominance under the government of Ibrahim al-Jaafari. The most successful of the Shi‘a political parties, the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), gained control over the Ministry of Interior. SCIRI viewed the Commandos as the “golden prize”, since they had the ability to move throughout the country, independent of the Coalition, to conduct paramilitary operations. Beginning in mid-2005, their ranks quietly filled with members of SCIRI’s Badr Organization, an established and organized militia historically funded by Iran, with Sunni members of the force being sidelined, intimidated and in some cases killed. While SCIRI never turned its weapons on Americans, it systematically used the Special Police Commandos to target Iraqis, overwhelmingly Sunnis, who were influential and had fought during the Iran-Iraq War, and those who had terminated the popular uprisings following the first Gulf War. For example, Saddam-era air force pilots were methodically targeted in a wave of mid-2005 killings. SCIRI sought not only revenge on behalf of its Iranian supporters and its own community, but also to ensure that the Shi‘a would never again be repressed by hated Sunni Ba‘athists. When Coalition forces discovered and freed groups of detained and abused people in makeshift prisons (mostly, but not exclusively Sunni), many Shi‘a political leaders objected that the prisoners were “terrorists” who deserved their fate. Conversely, many within the Sunni communities began to view the Commandos as “death squads.” Despite the radically changed political optic surrounding the Commandos, the United States continued to train and equip them alongside the ISF, unwittingly helping to fan the flames of sectarianism. Thus, Coalition efforts helped SCIRI pursue narrow political objectives at the expense of Iraqi reconstruction, peace and security. We should have known then, but now we know for sure: It’s not how many we train and mentor that counts, but who we train and mentor, and what type of oversight and government structure they work under. The Sadrist Trend. Violence in Iraq has evolved in tandem with its politics. We are now long past a palette of violence that features only Shi‘a versus Sunni; a cascade of intracommunal frictions are now as important or more so than intercommunal ones. Understanding this fact is essential when dealing with the Sadrist Trend. The Sadrist Trend and its militia, Jaysh al-Mahdi (JAM), are composed of numerous factions. Most support a nationalist voice for Shi‘a social issues, particularly for the underclass. On the surface, the Sadrist Trend’s nationalist position continues to be a voice against foreign occupation, be it American or Iranian, but the reality is far more complex than that. The Trend spread in 2004 through a series of uprisings against the U.S. presence in Iraq led by Moqtada al-Sadr. As it spread, however, it acquired rogue elements devoted to their own personal, increasingly violent agendas. Some groups within the JAM became purely criminal, while other extreme factions, known as JAM Special Groups, were backed by the Iranian al-Qods Force. For many years, U.S. officials did not appreciate JAM’s diversity, and U.S. actions tended to drive together groups that were otherwise very loosely associated. But beginning in late 2006 and early 2007 the Coalition re-assessed its approach to the Sadrists, aiming to separate the politically radical segments from the more mercenary groups. Success in this task is one of the primary reasons for the current reduction in attacks across much of the country. Likewise, we must be aware of whom our actions empower. In this case, SCIRI and the Prime Minister’s party, Dawa, have the most to gain from the Sadrists’ decline. That is probably a good thing, up to a point. Nonetheless, the Sadrists will continue to play an important political role within Iraq for the foreseeable future, but America’s actions will help determine which wings prevail. Some are potentially responsible partners in a Shi‘a-majority ruled Iraq and some are not. We must be able to reliably know which are which, and act accordingly. The Sons of Iraq. As is well known, the Awakenings or “Sons of Iraq” movement allowed for the neutralization of large numbers of Sunni insurgents. Throughout the second half of 2007, some 100,000 men, mostly Sunni, were hired by the Coalition to protect critical infrastructure and take part in local neighborhood watches. The effort marked a true turning point in the war by removing the base from al-Qaeda, helping to create a temporary balance of power throughout the country. Longer-term gains are dependent, however, on the Coalition’s ability to manage and transition the Sons of Iraq off the Coalition payroll and into Iraqi society. This will not be easy, and we need to be careful how we proceed. The Awakenings, like JAM, are not monolithic. The Sons of Iraq are primarily former insurgents who belong to more than 125 groups with differing political aspirations and are influenced by numerous entities and causes. While the vast majority of the Sons of Iraq wish to become part of the ISF, only a fraction will likely be allowed in. Being able to identify these individuals, and knowing how to manage the rejects, will be crucial to composing a security balance within the Awakening and the ISF as a whole. This process will take years, not months. Forcing the next Iraqi government to integrate the Sons of Iraq into the police or army as quickly as we hired them is not the solution; it would just mark the beginning of another problem. Three Principles for Progress
The past five years have taught us three main principles about the relationship between Iraqi politics and U.S. security assistance. The first is that we should not underestimate the significance of Iraqi political resets.Since 2003, there have been four national governments: the Iraqi Governing Council, the Interim Government, the Transitional Government, and the current government led by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. By the end of January 2009, Iraq will hold provincial elections. National elections will occur in late 2009, bringing changes in political and military leadership, policies and institutional make-up—in essence, another political reset. The Iraqi political timetable, particularly for the earlier governments that lasted less than a year, did not promote a system that rewarded consensus-building leadership or long-term planning. If anything, government officials, knowing that their tenure would be brief, used their positions maximize patronage earnings at a time when money, jobs and stability were scarce. The January 2005 elections represented a political reset of a different kind. Many Sunnis sat out the elections, resulting in their underrepresentation at the national level. The Shi‘a-dominated government that then assumed power triggered a massive purging of government officials and security forces. Many of the people the United States had cultivated for years saw their influence dwindle. In many cases, we needed to start all over again in developing liaison with key personnel. These rapid, dislocating transitions shed light on why it has been so difficult to create a functioning government in Iraq, let alone any sense of sustained political progress or reliable security forces. Another reset is coming, so we should be ready for a significant amount of turbulence and discontinuity. At long last, we should understand that politics drives the security situation more than the security situation drives politics. The second principle: It matters enormously how we deploy our assistance assets. America could be considered the largest tribe in Iraq, yet it has been manipulated repeatedly by friend and foe alike. This does not have to be so. Strategically balanced assistance should define how we allocate our resources in the years ahead. This may sound like common sense, but it would mark a clear change from the way we have operated in the past—a shift from providing blanket assistance to providing strategically balanced assistance. Take, for example, the Sunni Awakening. While integration is a vital component to sustained security, rushed integration should not be the objective. Strategic assistance should advance select members of the Awakening to the security forces. Full integration would be counterproductive to a self-sustaining government and functional security force, because it would touch off Shi‘a reactions to compensate for so many Sunnis in the force. Political and security roles, at all levels, must be assumed by qualified Iraqis who recognize and respect the constitutional government. The United States should focus on the needs and potential of individuals as we seek to marginalize hardliners and co-opt members that are less ideologically driven. We should guide that process by prioritizing who is provided training, be it in the security forces or in vocational programs. The United States would be wise to continue paying the salaries of some people destined for exclusion from the ISF, since their integration into government programs could disrupt its current tenuous political balance. We must also recognize that the utility of the various forms of aid we provide will shift as the ISF moves from fighting an internal threat to being a more traditional, outward-focused military force. The United States must gauge support based upon Iraq’s evolving landscape. For instance, the current discussions concerning the potential sale of F-16 jet fighters to Iraq should take place within a broader historical context. While the sale may create additional levers of influence, it may also reduce U.S. influence in the long run, or even provide weapons to a future adversary. For example, when the United States sold F-14s to Iran in the mid 1970s, we did not contemplate the Islamic Revolution and how these weapons would alter the balance of power against our interests. The same can be said for Pakistan and how we have misallocated our assistance to that politically tumultuous country over the past thirty years. Clearly, providing arms is only one component in the mix. The real return will come with U.S. investment in the institutional capacity of Iraqi government agencies and the continuity they can provide. That form of investment should increase as the internal security situation stabilizes over time. The third principle for progress is to prioritize the build-up of U.S. political capital in Iraq. With each passing day, U.S. influence in Iraq fades as Iraq learns the benefits and burdens of sovereignty. This is natural and welcome, but it’s also more reason for America’s remaining influence to be used discerningly. Translating existing U.S. influence into lasting and tangible results that transcend political resets is in both America’s and Iraq’s interest. One way to maximize U.S. political capital in Iraq’s still-volatile political environment is to combine all the programs for U.S. strategic assistance into a single interagency task force in order to provide policy guidance to military and civilian decision-makers. That agency should have a political analysis unit staffed by Iraq experts who can ensure that assistance is applied so as to effectively prioritize resources, promote a fair government, foster local security solutions and improve the chances of sustained success. As our leverage shifts from our troop presence to our strategic assistance processes, we need to be far more discerning about how we use our residual assets. As things stand now, shrewd actors can play one U.S. source of assistance against others. We need to prevent this so that we, not others, can shape the future in Iraq. There is no simple answer, no pat formula, for dealing with Iraq. The Iraq we know today will not be the same country next year, let alone five or ten years from now. It is still redefining itself—from the role of federalism and the distribution of wealth to its geopolitical relationships with the United States and the rest of the Middle East. Understanding how numerous political resets have driven change since 2003 will help us prepare for a still uncertain future. Perhaps as the direct U.S. military role recedes we will find it easier to pay attention to politics—always a trump card. If so, then the United States will do a better job of applying strategic assistance.