Iraq Needs More Than Trainers

By Matthew M. Reed

Iraqi leaders will soon decide whether they want 200 Americans in Baghdad or 10,000 Americans working around the country ready to train Iraqi soldiers, secure borders, and protect airspace. According to the terms of the 2008 SOFA, the US must remove all forces by December 31. But it’s obvious the Iraqi military is not up to certain tasks. While this may be clear to many, eight years of occupation have made a new arrangement hard to obtain. Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki avoided taking a stance for some time because he did not want to be labeled an American stooge. Meanwhile, Muqtada al Sadr, the anti-American cleric and linchpin of Iraq’s fragile coalition government, has opposed any residual American force.

That said, Maliki may soon ask the Americans to stay. He told Iraqiyah Television on July 15 that he would not need parliament to approve any American training mission. According to the Prime Minister, “this issue does not require the approval of the Parliament, because the weapon purchasing contracts require the manufacturers to provide training and maintenance for the purchased weapons.” President Talabani and Foreign Minister Zebari have since said they support a narrow but enduring American presence. Maliki’s gamble may be less risky than some think. Sadr “the Spoiler” has threatened violence, it’s true, but he has shown no willingness to destroy the coalition government by leaving it, probably because he doesn’t want to be solely responsible for the political paralysis and violence that would follow. (A good indicator of Sadr’s intent may be who he lines up to leave the government with him—he won’t jump ship alone.)

Some will say an enduring American presence will echo through the halls of power around the Gulf, proving, no doubt, that the US is committed to its allies and determined to offset the Iranian threat. In all likelihood, this view overstates what the US can achieve with a residual force of 10,000. Iran, certainly, will remain allergic to America’s presence. There’s simply no chance the US can deal Iran a decisive blow in the short-term by fighting a proxy war with trainers and Special Forces, both of which will be hemmed in by terms of engagement dictated by Maliki, who has the most to lose from inviting Americans to stay.

The IRGC and others will continue their “wait and bleed” campaign in hopes that they can improve the stock of Shia partisans and chip away at American prestige. The US will track down bomb-making networks, kill some Iranian agents, and gather more damning evidence which suggests Iran is the primary sponsor of the insurgency. But a real showdown just won’t happen. Neither side is eager to pick a fight that could escalate–and so the logic of a larger deployment deserves further examination.

In the meantime, Iranian leaders will celebrate Iraq’s economic and military weakness. The last thing they want is a neighbor negatively impacting their share of the oil market. They also don’t want anything like a successful democracy or a strong military force next door since both would contrast sharply with Iran’s failures on both counts. If the US truly wants to help Iraq regain its regional swagger and counterbalance Iran, Washington’s commitment to Iraqi security must be matched by attention paid to the economy and Iraq’s regional status.

I say this because the security situation in Iraq is manageable if imperfect. Bombings, killings, and corruption still haunt Iraq’s democratic experiment—but the country is stable enough to do business, as recent oil and gas contracts prove. Roving death squads no longer keep doors shut on schools; instead, bureaucratic failures and poor funding prevent services from reaching citizens. Yes, Iraqis need further military training and the US should help Iraq develop a technological edge over Iran’s armed forces. But the Washington-Baghdad relationship should not be warped by security concerns alone. Instead, the US should match its military commitment with a civilian-commercial program focusing on the economy and quality of life.

The United States needs a new, dependable heavyweight to counterbalance Tehran since its profile in the Middle East will continue to shrink over the next decade. Security hinges on prosperity and so the latter deserves serious attention. I know this post is broad and the suggestions here are not profound. But the debate over an American training mission in Iraq misses the point: Iraq and Iran are doomed to compete. The sooner they do—politically and economically, not just militarily—the sooner the US can allow other regional powers to secure shared interests.

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