Web Chat: The Status of Iraq

On July 11, Kenneth Pollack answered your questions on the current situation in Iraq, in a live web chat moderated by POLITICO senior editor David Mark.

12:30 David Mark: Welcome to this timely discussion on the future of Iraq.

12:30 [Comment From Eric: ] Do you think it is possible to complete the drawdown of U.S. troops without leaving the country too vulnerable?

12:30 Ken Pollack: It is certainly possible, but it is going to be hard-and risky. I am actually pretty comfortable with the drawdown to 50k. That’s still a lot of troops and if handled well, I think they can deal with the most likely violence. The big question mark out there is the Iraqi political process. If that goes well, then we can keep reducing troops and probably do it pretty quickly. The problem is that if it goes badly, it absolutely could push the country back to civil war–and it will require a lot of troops to prevent it. So the real question mark is the political process, and right now I am concerned that by December 2011 (when all U.S. troops are supposed to be gone), the Iraqi political process will not be stable or mature enough to handle a complete withdrawal of U.S. troops. Last point on this: this situation is going to evolve over time. I go to Iraq every 4-6 months and it is amazing how much the country changes from trip to trip. In 6 or 12 months, if there has been considerable progress with the politics, the situation might be strong enough to allow for a much faster, more dramatic withdrawal of US troops. It’s just that given where they are right now, that doesn’t look like the most likely scenario.

12:32 [Comment From Jennie: ] What do you make of this seeming inability to put together a new government since the elections last March? What would it take for Allawi and Maliki to get together?

12:32 Ken Pollack: This is the $64,000 question. Both Maliki and Allawi KNOW that the best outcome for both of them is a coalition of their two parties. But the problem is that they really don’t like each other, and both want to be the senior partner in the coalition. So far, no one has been able to get around that. I think the Administration is on the right track by trying to farm out some of the powers that the PM has accrued to other official positions—both to make people more comfortable that the next PM won’t emerge as a dictator, and to create additional positions that would be acceptable to the two of them and other important groups who will also want to have a key position of authority. My concern is that what the US, UN and Iraqis have been talking about—some new positions and legislature to give force to their authority—may not fix the situation, and might even make it worse. As PM, Maliki has demonstrated an ability to subvert and work around other such new positions that were created as counterbalances to his office. That suggests that he, or whoever is the next PM, might be able to do so again if that is all we do. In addition, especially with the new parliament, the PM will probably be able to manipulate the CoR fairly easily to get legislation repealed or merely ignored. It is why I’d like to see constitutional changes to shift the role of commander-in-chief and responsibility for the security services to the Presidency. That would create a real balance of power between the Presidency and the PM, and would create two positions that I think either Maliki or Allawi would be willing to take.

12:36 [Comment From Kathleen: ] Can you discuss security in Iraq and the current level of attacks by insurgents?

12:36 Ken Pollack: No one knows how the Iraqi military is going to behave once the U.S. military is truly gone–and that is a very big question mark. We have seen militaries that everyone thought were completely professional turn around and overthrow a democratic government within months of the departure of U.S. troops. (Nicaragua in the 30s). So we can’t be glib about this problem.

As for the threat of the insurgents, it is a problem for the average Iraqi, but not necessarily for the political system. The insurgents really are flat on their backs. They can kill people here and there, but they can’t mobilize enough force to really threaten one of the other communities. I suspect that the military will be able to keep the insurgency at this level IF the political process makes progress.

But that is the key. I’m sorry to keep carping on this issue, but that is really what matters in Iraq today. If the political process breaks down, the security situation will go to hell with it–and it will really go to hell unless the US is able and willing to step in. That is why it is so important that the political process make progress–it doesn’t have to become Switzerland tomorrow, it just can’t break down.

12:36 David Mark: Critics of the 2003 Iraq invasion contend that toppling the Baathist regime allowed Iran to expand its influence. Is there any way of telling how much sway the Iranian government or its agents will have over the Iraqi government once U.S. troops withdraw?

12:40 Ken Pollack: It is a big question mark, but at this point still a question mark (and pardon the pun on your name).

Iraqis mostly dislike Iran–and I mean really, really dislike Iran. If they felt strong enough to stand up to Iran, they absolutely would, and that is what we see from them whenever they are feeling strong. So the problem is when they are feeling weak. If they are scared of violence, and scared that no one else is going to help them deal with the violence, then the Shi’ah tend to fall back on Iran not because they like them, but as the only game in town.

Iran has suffered a number of huge defeats in recent years–the clearing of Basra in 2008, the provincial elections of 2009, the national elections this year–but they are still not out because the political situation is still so weak and fragile, and whoever the losers are among the Shiah go looking to the Iranians to try to recoup their losses.

So if Iraq emerges as a strong, functional country, I think Iranian influence will be present but very limited. The weaker Iraq is the more that Iran will be able to exploit cracks and fissures to make itself influential.

12:41 [Comment From Marshall Lilly: ] President Obama has claimed in recent speeches that he’s fulfilling one of his campaign pledges by ending the combat mission in Iraq by August 2010, even though the Status of Forces Agreement negotiated and implemented by the Bush administration is what set this process in motion. Has President Obama’s Iraq policy differed in any major ways from the last two years of the Bush Administration, or has he largely followed the script his predecessor left for him?

12:46 Ken Pollack: Certainly President Obama did not pull all the troops out immediately (within 16 months) as he said on the campaign trail, and he certainly has shown a much greater interest in leaving Iraq responsibly and leaving behind a stable state than he suggested when he was a candidate. This is obviously more along the lines of the Bush administration’s approach than what he claimed on the campaign trail (and I applaud any leader who can look at what is best for the country and put that ahead of what he/she may have said while running for office).

On the other hand, the President is very determined to drawdown the U.S. presence in Iraq, to minimize our expenditures, to change the nature of our relationship and to do so at a pace probably a lot faster than what the Bush administration would have done had they somehow remained in office. I think the key here goes back to one of my earlier answers: your willingness to accept risks in Iraq. The script is broadly the same, but the Obama Administration has shown a greater propensity to accept risks in Iraq than the Bush administration was showing by the time they left office. If all goes well, the Obama Administration will look like geniuses, if not, the Bushies will get to say “I told you so.” (And the Iraqis will suffer a horrific civil war, let’s not forget.)

12:46 [Comment From Bilal Wahab: ] What is the role that Iraq’s oil revenue can play, not only economically, but politically? Will oil unite or divide Iraqis?

12:48 Ken Pollack: Another very important question. The oil experts all seem to believe that there is a lot more oil in Iraq than was understood even ten years ago. What’s more, a lot of Iraqi oil can be extracted and exported reasonably cheaply, making it very valuable. Iraq’s leaders all seem to believe that they are going to be rolling in oil revenues any minute, and that this will solve virtually all of their problems–they will be able to rebuild the electrical grid, import water, rebuild infrastructure, agriculture, education, etc. There will be so much money that everyone will be able to take care of their needs.

12:50 Ken Pollack: We can all hope that will be true, but in the short term, there will be reason for skepticism. First, iraq’s export capacity is limited and they have huge problems with water injection to get the oil out of the fields. That suggests the increase in production is going to start very modestly–perhaps only pushing exports from 2.2 to 2.4 million barrels per day next year. That is not going to mean a big increase in oil revenues, and there probably won’t be a big increase for several more years.

12:52 Ken Pollack: Second, the way that the Iraqis structured their contracts with he oil companies, the companies have every incentive to take their share early on, so that Iraqi oil revenues won’t increase significantly for several years and might actually decline for the next 2-3 years.

What all that sets up is that rather than having so much money that the government can make everyone happy, it might be that they are faced by much bigger deficits than in the past and that is going to force the politicians to make some very hard choices among who gets money to deal with their particular problems. That could be VERY divisive.

12:52 [Comment From Sean Bennett: ] General Odierno recently stated that American troops are staying in Iraq to keep the country free from foreign interference. Were American troops to withdraw, would a surge in outside interference be likely, and, if so, from whom and to what extent?

12:55 Ken Pollack: Preventing outside intervention is obviously only one of the roles U.S. troops are playing in Iraq. The most important role they are playing right now is peacekeeping among Iraq’s internal factions–and the truth is that that is what consumes the biggest part of their activities. When we talk about foreign intervention there are two issues: an outright invasion or “subversion”. I don’t think the Iranians have any intention of invading Iran these days, but our presence certainly reassures the Iraqis and prevents the Iranians from using that as a threat–which they probably would if we weren’t there. Our presence doesn’t do anything to stop smaller incursions, like the Turks going after the PKK in the North, or the Iranians grabbing an oil field near the border in the south, so we need to keep this particular part in perspective.

12:58 Ken Pollack: Subversion is the harder one for U.S. troops to deal with, but they play a role here too. First, they help the Iraqis man the borders which certainly does cut down on arms smuggling and people smuggling–but it sure doesn’t stop it. Of far greater importance is my first point about peacekeeping: because U.S. troops on their own and backing up the ISF have made it deeply unpalatable for the militia groups to use violence against their rivals, the supply of weapons and other lethal assistance from Iraq’s neighbors no longer has the utility it once did. It’s not that it has no influence, but it just isn’t causing the mayhem that it once did. So in that sense, the ability of U.S. troops to help prevent internal conflict probably does the most to limit the ability of malevolent external actors from having a big impact on the country.

12:58 David Mark: How much autonomy are the Kurds of Northern Iraq likely to have in the coming years?

12:58 Ken Pollack: More than the central government wants but less than the Kurds will want.

1:00 Ken Pollack: Okay, now let me be a bit more serious. No one is talking about disbanding the Peshmerga. No one is talking about integrating the KRG into the Iraqi central bureaucracy. No one is talking about forcing the Kurds to use Iraqi texts. No one is talking about forbidding the Kurds from flying their flag or conducting their elections on their terms. So all of that is likely to persist and all of that is likely to leave Kurdistan quite autonomous.

1:02 Ken Pollack: But obviously, they need to come to agreement on hydrocarbons. Moreover, the Kurds want Baghdad to pay for the Pesh, and Baghdad wants to have at least nominal authority over the Pesh–they are talking about making the Pesh a reserve division or two of the Iraqi army which could be mobilized in time of national emergency. These two things, and a few others, will place important limits on Kurdish autonomy and especially the oil provisions, keep the Kurds as part of Iraq and a part whose future is very much bound up with Iraq.

1:03 [Comment From Ladan: ] While Obama has said America’s strategy will shift to training Iraqi security forces, others are saying that there could be an upsurge in insurgent activity once we pull out. According to an article by RFE/RL, violent military groups could seek to fill the vacuum created by Iraq’s stalled political process. Brigadier General Ralph Baker said the government’s failure accompanied with U.S. pullout could spring a new wave of violence. Baker predicted that insurgent groups would attempt to “discredit the government and discredit the security forces” in an effort to gain a foothold. Other reports show that Iraqi army officials are saying they need American support for another DECADE before it’s ready to handle security on its own. Can you comment on his concerns? Would our departure just spring more violence? And also can you talk about the disputed death toll—reports have indicated that July was the deadliest month for civilians in Iraq for more than two years (396 civilians, 50 Iraqi soldiers and 89 police officers) while others are saying violence has diminished. The stories are here and here.

1:05 Ken Pollack: I wanted to follow up on my earlier answer on security with a quick answer to this question. It is certainly the case that the insurgents might take advantage of a quick withdrawal of US troops, but the ISF is really quite capable and, actually, in the absence of U.S. forces (and the restraints we impose on the Iraqis) they might be even more brutally effective against the insurgents. Of course, while that might be “good” in terms of dealing with the insurgents, it could be very bad in terms of the political future of the country.

1:08 Ken Pollack: As I suggested earlier, I am MUCH more concerned about the potential for violence arising from the political process itself. It would take a lot for the insurgents to restart the civil war, but it would be easy for the militias attached to the various political parties to do so. The big risk in the short term is that if the current impasse over government formation goes on too long, some of the militias and thugs may decide to “take matters into their own hands” and try to break the logjam by killing or intimidating people. If they do so, and they are allowed to get away with it by the US and the government, then other groups will do the same. And that will lead to a very quick resumption of the civil war. That is far more dangerous than the insurgents, whom the vast majority of Iraqis look at as marginalized extremists who are a threat to what they want their future to be.

1:08 [Comment From Garrett Mitchell: ] Can we expect that the IRGC will look for ways to help complicate the US draw-down and disrupt the process of the Iraqi’s forming their new government?

1:12 Ken Pollack: I suspect that the Iranian Revolutionary Guard would love to put a few licks on us as we leave so that they can claim to have driven us out–or at least that they got the last hit. But I suspect that the regime will be calculating its larger interests and it may or may not serve those larger interests to provoke us on our way out. In particular, they will be keeping an eye on their own nuclear stand-off with the rest of the world and whether such aggressive activity in Iraq would help or hurt them on that. In addition, they will also be thinking about how to maximize their influence in Iraq after we have departed. The lesson of Basra (and Sadr City, Amarah, Qurnah and the other battles of the Spring and Summer of 2008) were that an Iranian focus on military operations hurt them with the Iraqi people. Since then, we have seen them focusing on a “soft power” strategy of trying to build up their allies in Iraq by helping them to help the Iraqi people. If they calculate that conducting military operations in Iraq will frighten Iraqis and cause them to abandon the political parties who receive aid from Iran, they might restrain themselves.

1:14 Ken Pollack: From my own conversations with them, I think the administration is very amenable to keeping some kind of military presence in Iraq post-2011. Just on that, I will say that there seems to be a pretty lively debate within the administration on how big a presence it should be, and the divisions again seem to be driven by how risk-acceptant the different officials are.

1:16 Ken Pollack: The big issue out there is that the U.S. won’t want to start the conversation. Because Iraq is now fully sovereign and the administration (understandably) does not want to antagonize Iraqi nationalism, the administration wants the Iraqis to ask the question, and then we can start discussing answers. But whether the Iraqis ask the question could depend heavily on who is in the next government and what the nature of the government is.

1:13 [Comment From Jon: ] What are the odds that U.S. troops will remain in Iraq beyond December 2011? Do you think that the Iraqi leadership will want to negotiate an agreement that will allow American forces to remain in the country for training and other purposes beyond 2011? And would the Obama administration be amenable to that?

1:19 Ken Pollack: In private, even Iraqi Sadrists will say that they want U.S. troops to remain after December 2011. That’s nice to hear but meaningless if they refuse to say it publicly, would refuse to support a new SOFA in the CoR, and would harshly criticize other Iraqi officials who were willing to support it–as they did last time. We don’t know if the Iraqi politicians who lead the next government will have the strength of character AND the political space to actually advocate it publicly. Again, it is why the political process is so critical. I will simply close on this question by saying that my sense of Iraqi public opinion right now is that every Iraqi is determined to have U.S. troops withdraw completely, but terrified that they actually will. That could create the necessary support for a new SOFA but it could mean that even though everyone agrees it is necessary, it still falls through the cracks.

1:20 [Comment From Meredith: ] Do you believe a politically, economically, or militarily weak Iraq is in the best interest of its neighbors? If so, which neighbors, and what do you think they are or will be doing to keep Iraq from evolving in such ways in the future?

1:21 Ken Pollack: As with so many things related to Iraq, the answer to this one depends. It depends on which neighbor you are talking about and just what they think “weak” means.

I don’t think any of Iraq’s neighbors–including Iran–want to see it fall back into civil war. The spillover would be disastrous from it, and they were badly spooked by 2005-2006. And they do understand that a weak Iraq could slip back into civil war, so they don’t want it too weak.

1:24 Ken Pollack: But that’s where all the “buts” start. The Iranians would certainly prefer a weak Iraq to a strong Iraq, and even more to a strong Iraq allied with the United States. What is unclear is whether they would prefer a strong Iraq not aligned to the U.S. (which might still be very independent from them) to a very weak Iraq aligned to the U.S.–which could fall back into civil war or serve as a springboard for a U.S. military move against Iran. (And I am not suggesting the Obama administration is considering a military move against Iran, in fact I think exactly the opposite. It is just that the Iranians certainly will worry about it.)

1:26 Ken Pollack: The Jordanians, Saudis, Kuwaitis and others would like a strong, pro-Arab (even pro-American Iraq) that can serve as their “buffer” with Iran. But they obviously also have to worry about a strong, rapacious Iraq–or a strong, pro-Iranian Iraq. On the other hand, they in particular worry that a weak Iraq would be prey to Iran or to civil war. It is why for them, they would most like to see the Iraqi government dominated by Iraq’s Sunnis.

1:28 Ken Pollack: I don’t think the Syrians care that much about Iraq–they have bigger fish to fry, so in the interests of time, I will simply mention the Turks. The Turks have been very sophisticated and constructive on Iraq in recent years. They mostly want to see a strong Iraq–one that can stand up to Iran, one that will not devolve into civil war, one that can prevent the PKK from attacking Turkey, etc. But they too do not want to see Saddam’s Iraq recreated, which would be very troublesome for them. Whether they would prefer a weak Iraq subject to Iranian influence and teetering on the brink of civil war to a rapacious new Iraq? Well, I think the Turks would prefer not to ever have to make that decision.

1:28 [Comment From Miles: ] How strong are the prospects for natural gas exporting, either through the Nabucco Pipeline or via Turkey, and how might they affect Iraq’s relations with its neighbors, the EU, and Russia?

1:32 Ken Pollack: Long term, I think there is a high likelihood. Iraq needs to harness its natural gas and export it. Turkey wants to be the conduit, and Western Europe is the obvious consumer–with a big appetite. So the economics push strongly in that direction.

But in the short term there are all kinds of hurdles to overcome. In particular, the Iraqis actually have to build a natural gas infrastructure–and by the way, they need this for their own energy needs too. Then they may need to prioritize between gas and oil export infrastructure. In the midst of all this, it is not clear Nabucco can survive until the Iraqis are ready. But unless things really go to hell, I think it a fair bet that even if Nabucco doesn’t make it, at some point there will be a pipeline taking Iraqi natural gas up to Western Europe–Baghdad to Baumgarten, as people are calling it.

1:32 David Mark: Thanks for joining us today.