President Obama's announcement that he intends to withdraw most US troops from Iraq by August 2010 is most welcome, heralding the end of the Bush administration's disastrous war. Relieved as we may be about the looming exit, however, we should be concerned about the design of the exit strategy. Just as the invasion was a momentous event for Iraq and the region – liberating to many but devastating to many others – so will be a US departure. Danger lurks in a pullout done in haste that prioritizes military over political considerations, fails to consult a broad range of Iraqis and Iraq's neighbors, and is heedless of Iraq's enduring fragility.
On this point, Obama has said all the right things. In his speech at Camp Lejeune, N.C., on Feb. 27 he spoke of a three-part strategy involving the responsible removal of combat brigades, sustained diplomacy to secure a more peaceful and prosperous Iraq, and comprehensive US engagement across the region. Specifically, he mentioned aiding the United Nations to support national elections, brokering agreements on basic issues dividing Iraqis, and building the capacity of Iraqi institutions.
In the same tenor, US military commanders, from Lt. Gen. Ray Odierno on down, have warned that if the withdrawal is not thought through and implemented carefully, the gains of the past two years may yet be undone.
Despite such oratory, there appears to be a disconcerting focus on Iraq's upcoming parliamentary elections as decisive proof of the country's successful recovery and the main precondition for a withdrawal. In my discussions with administration officials earlier this month, for example, it was clear that many saw the elections as a critical test of Iraq's ability to sustain itself beyond a US departure.
This singular focus on the parliamentary elections is ill-conceived and dangerous. First, despite reports that elections will take place in December, they have not yet been scheduled, pending necessary legislation. If the past is any guide, negotiations over an elections law may be protracted given the stakes. Under the constitution, the polls should be held by the end of January 2010. But the provincial elections, which took place this past January, suffered a four-month delay due to political wrangling. Even if things go according to schedule, forming a new government will take time. In 2005 it took four months; six in 2006. There is no reason to believe it will be any swifter now. This will leave little wiggle room if most troops must leave by August 2010.
More important, the elections will probably prove very little. At most, they will illustrate that as long as Washington insists on them and provides a protective environment, they will take place; there is no guarantee that an Iraq free of US forces will resort to democratic exercises to decide who rules. And while elections should be encouraged as an important indicator of political progress, they are not what will make or break Iraq.
As violence has abated, politics remains highly dysfunctional. Fundamental conflicts over power (how to divide it), territory (how to allocate disputed areas, especially oil-rich Kirkuk) and resources (how to manage them and share oil income) simmer without prospect of early resolution and will determine what happens to Iraq when the US leaves. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki may have surprised friend and foe by profiling himself as a national statesman seeking to restore a national Iraqi, rather than an ethnic or sectarian, identity, but in so doing he is alienating one of his main governing allies, the Kurds. Thus, as sectarianism recedes, it is increasingly replaced by a struggle between Kurdish and Arab nationalism, which could turn violent.
If the Obama administration wishes to leave Iraq and not be forced to either maintain a significant military presence or, worse, return if the country disintegrates, it will need to craft an exit strategy that hinges not on parliamentary elections but on helping Iraqis fashion a series of political bargains that will provide all key actors with a stake in the new order. These deals concern a federal hydrocarbons law, a settlement over Kirkuk, and agreement over the division of powers that jointly would pave the way for consensus on amending the constitution.
To accomplish this, the US should support UN efforts to bring together a broad range of Iraqis and help them forge what would amount to a new national compact. This could be done via a big-tent exercise, such as the one being organized on Afghanistan, and would require close coordination with Iraq's neighbors, whose abiding interests in the country's future are matched by a troubling ability to throw a spanner in the wheels.
Whatever the terms of the needed deals, forgoing them is not an option. Absent the glue that US troops have provided, Iraq's political actors are likely to fight, emboldened by a sense they can prevail, if necessary with outside help. Obama should make sure that the peace he leaves behind is sustainable, lest Bush's war of choice turn into his war of necessity.