At some point in the next several years, the United States will have withdrawn the preponderance of its military forces from Iraq. As Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad has said, “We have opened the Pandora’s box, and the question is, what is the way forward?” Any realistic and prudent U.S. strategy must be designed to protect and advance those enduring American interests at play in Iraq and the broader region. In Iraq, the United States must prevent the establishment of safe havens for Al Qaeda, prevent the civil war from becoming a wider war that engulfs the region, and prevent genocide of Iraq’s Sunni or Kurdish populations. These three enduring interests—the “Three Nos”—are fundamental to America’s security imperatives in Iraq and the region.
The “Three Nos” require a strategy focused on maintaining Iraq’s territorial integrity and sovereignty, as well as creating an internal balance of power among Shia, Sunnis, and Kurds that reduces the chances of mass violence and improves the chances of political reconciliation.
These interests are interrelated: avoiding Al Qaeda safe havens and preventing genocide will both help reduce the risk of regional war.
While the “Three Nos” constitute our core interests in Iraq, they are also linked to America’s broader regional interests. Preventing the establishment of jihadist safe havens in Iraq and elsewhere in the region is a basic U.S. security interest shared by America’s allies.
Preventing a regional war and genocide within Iraq is a prerequisite to reestablishing stability in the Middle East and, over time, to rebuilding America’s image and credibility—in the region and worldwide.
They also are critical to protecting vital U.S. interests like maintaining the free flow of energy and checking Iran’s hegemonic and nuclear aspirations.
And while democracy promotion should remain an interest of the United States, the last four years of war should serve as proof that the export of democracy by force is a fool’s errand. Democracy is the end result of a long evolutionary process, certainly not something that an external power can forcibly graft onto a region with centuries of grievances. America should support the promotion of democracy, but it should be considered a long-term adjunct to the more pragmatic objectives of stability and good governance.
The “Three Nos” must be considered in the context of a post-Iraq future that will be highly dangerous and threatening to American interests. The likelihood that Iraq will be the site of an enduring proxy war between Iran and Iraq’s Sunni neighbors, for example, is quite high. With money, arms, and intelligence operatives from Iran and Saudi Arabia already adding to Iraq’s toxic mix of sectarian militias, criminality, and jihadist extremism, the prospect of continued violence and instability is all too real. The broad Shia revival—which has fundamentally altered the perceived distribution of power throughout the region—should also be understood as a new and growing threat.
In addition, non-state actors in Iraq and the broader Middle East, such as Al Qaeda, Hezbollah, and Iraqi cleric Moqtada al Sadr’s Mahdi militia, are gaining a level of power and influence that rivals governments throughout the region. The war has fanned the flames of extremism throughout the Middle East, leaving the region more vulnerable to radical jihadists than ever before. These nonstate, and in some cases transnational, groups will pose continued threats to regional stability for the foreseeable future. Finally, the U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq has undermined U.S. moral authority, credibility, and standing in the Middle East, greatly weakening its ability to influence actors and events in the region and to act as a stabilizing presence amid the growing chaos.
It is vital that America shift its strategy in Iraq from one based on hope to one based on realism. The current approach to Iraq—the so-called “surge”—is premised on the hope that additional American troops can reduce the violence in and around Baghdad enough to allow Iraq’s Shia-dominated central government to pursue political reconciliation. There is little to no indication that Prime Minister Nouri Kamal al Maliki has the willingness and ability to do so. In essence, American strategy in Iraq is entirely premised on an assumption regarding Maliki’s intention and capacity that will likely prove false.
In a similar way, those who argue for a rapid withdrawal from Iraq are also basing their case on hopeful assumptions that are unrealistic. The National Intelligence Estimate of January 2007 explicitly warned that if a rapid withdrawal were to take place, “massive civilian casualties and forced population displacement would be probable,” as would open intervention in the conflict by Iraq’s neighbors.
In short, policymakers need to acknowledge that both maintaining the current strategy and withdrawing quickly are unrealistic choices that do not sufficiently address American core interests. Unfortunately, the binary nature of the current debate—”You’re either all in or all out”—is preventing a vital discussion concerning a responsible way forward and out of Iraq. We hope that a debate concerning America’s vital interests in Iraq—the “Three Nos”—can be a foundation for a realistic and bipartisan policy that can be sustained into the next administration.
Pursuing a strategy in Iraq predicated on preventing the “Three Nos” will be difficult, but not impossible. There are certain structural constraints that may help the United States: Several Sunni tribes have turned against Al Qaeda in Iraq; the chances of genocide against the Sunni or Kurdish populations are somewhat lessened by the fact that they are increasingly well-organized and well-armed; and none of Iraq’s neighbors desire a large regional war. It would be a grave mistake, however, to assume away the possibility of any of the “Three Nos” materializing, and the next president cannot repeat the wishful thinking and best-case assumptions that contributed to the current quagmire.
The “Three Nos” all require staying engaged with Iraqi actors at the federal and local level. To redeploy quickly would eliminate any remaining leverage the United States has, put our diplomats and civilians at grave risk, and make it far harder to prevent regional war, genocide, or the creation of a safe haven for Al Qaeda. We believe instead that a gradual withdrawal over a few years, complemented by a robust advisory effort on the scale advocated by the Iraq Study Group, constitutes the best of many bad options—and that it should commence at once.
Once a drawdown begins, the following steps must be undertaken to prevent the three outcomes the United States must avoid to attain a degree of stability in the region and to protect its interests. First, there must be an “outside-in” regional framework that places a great deal of emphasis on diplomacy and hard bargaining among Iraq, the United States, and Iraq’s neighbors. Second, the United States must retain sufficient “top-down” engagement with Iraq’s federal government in order to retain leverage, influence behavior within Iraq’s army and National Police, and maintain a degree of situational awareness. Third, America must place more emphasis on a “bottom-up” approach in Iraq that recognizes that local and provincial elements are often more influential and powerful than those of the weak Baghdad government.
More specifically, as the United States takes its combat forces out of the role of providing population security, it must retain sufficient forces in Iraq over the next few years to continue to conduct counterterrorism missions, provide force protection, and help strengthen the capacities of both the Kurds and the Sunni tribes in particular. As Iraq continues to evolve into three relatively autonomous regions (as the Iraqi constitution allows), it will be critical for the United States to implement a strategy that is focused on developing relationships with each of Iraq’s major groups and gives priority to building the capacity of local and provincial security forces that will ultimately enable a sustainable internal balance of power.
The invasion and failed occupation of Iraq have sent ripples throughout the region and the world that are sometimes difficult to perceive today, but it seems clear that the strategic contours of a post–Iraq war future will pose perhaps the greatest foreign policy challenge for the United States since the end of the Cold War. It is vital that the next president be clear-headed and realistic about the daunting nature of the challenges we face and the long-term effort to restore American power and influence in the post-Iraq era.