Ambassador Stephenson on Iraq

Thomas Stephenson (Ambassador to Portugal, 2007-2009)

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What steps should the United States take to help the Iraqi government stop the resurgence of al-Qaeda in Iraq?

Unfortunately, at this  point in time, we have relatively limited options in what we can do to help the Iraqi government stop the resurgence of al-Qaeda in Iraq.  Our dilemma results primarily from the ill conceived decision we made several years ago not to press Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki more aggressively for an agreement that would have maintained a U.S. military presence in Iraq for an extended period, as we have done historically at the end of wars in other parts of the world.  At this juncture, it is probably fair to say that neither the Iraqi PM nor our Commander-in-Chief would find it politically feasible to formally reintroduce U.S. troops back into the fray.  For both it would mean an unacceptable admission of failure.  Our president, having taken credit for ending the “bad war”, will not consider any step that might be construed as a reopening of that war (It should also be said in his defense that it is highly unlikely the U.S. public would be supportive of such an effort).  PM al-Maliki is caught up in what is principally sectarian strife and would only incur heightened wrath from the Sunni population of his country if he seeks a formal return of U.S. military troops to shore up his primarily Shiite military forces as they seek to root out largely Sunni al-Qaeda elements in western Iraq.

What probably is politically feasible, however, for both leaders, and may already be in play, is a more limited and covert program of assistance by the U.S. government.  Enhanced training of Iraqi forces, probably in a third party country such as Jordan, is one form of acceptable assistance.  Another possible alternative of constructive help would be the use of U.S. special forces units in limited and very specific missions.  Use of our drones, again for very limited missions, is also an alternative that might be politically feasible for both parties.  Perhaps other forms of weaponry can be made available to Iraqi forces for some limited and specific operations.  It is also possible that some of our military or diplomatic personnel who participated in negotiations with tribal leaders in western Iraq during the successful Bush surge could be of help.  We should probably assume that discussions on some of these alternatives have already taken place, but the leaders and governments of both countries have a vested interest in keeping any such agreements for assistance as low key and obscure as possible.

The outcome of the current turmoil in Iraq is difficult to forecast and we may not know for a while just what actions have been or will be taken since both parties have strong incentive to keep any joint efforts very low profile.  What is happening with a resurgence of al-Qaeda in Iraq is, unfortunately, playing out in various ways in Syria and, in some respects, across the middle east in countries with significant Sunni and Shiite populations.  What we should hope for most ardently, however, is that we have learned a lesson from what has happened as a result of premature withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq and not make the same mistake in Afghanistan.  Due only in part to obstruction from Karzai, that isn’t the direction in which we currently appear to be headed.

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