The news that over 60,000 US combat troops are leaving Iraq on the last day of August 2010, leaving 50,000 in a training capacity, has been presented as a step-change in the US's presence in Iraq since 2003. However, US combat forces have been withdrawing from major city and urban centres in Iraq since 2009, with limited direct involvement in operations over the past year. The gradual transfer of responsibility to the Iraqi security services is thus part of a longer-term process of US military withdrawal, of which the outcome is by no means assured. In reality, President Obama's fulfilment of his election campaign commitment to stick to a timetabled draw-down for US forces looks more like the management of US domestic politics than a reflection of the current situation in Iraq.
A major factor still in the balance is the composition and form that the central government of Iraq will take since the hotly contested general elections of March 2010 resulted in a stalemate between the two main electoral blocs. The first comprises the main Shi'ia political groups, headed by the incumbent Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, and the second a mixed 'secular' Shia and Sunni consortium, headed by the former Prime Minister Ayad Allawi. The latter won the majority of seats (91) in March, but not overall control of parliament. The former (with 89 seats) is still relying on on-going negotiations to stall both the formation of a new government and avoid ceding control to Allawi's supporters.
The political stalemate has worked to the advantage of the personalised networks still controlling individual Iraqi ministries. These decide how and where salaries are paid and reconstruction funds are directed. This in turn affects the trajectory of the national security effort which the remaining US military trainers will be engaged in until their own projected withdrawal at the end of 2011. Marie Colvin's recent report from the Sunni-majority city of Fallujah for The Sunday Times illustrates the conundrum regional Iraqi leaders are facing, above all in Sunni areas where al-Qaeda elements have become more active. Offering more money than the national Iraqi army and police forces provide to Iraqi recruits, who are often paid with considerable delays, Al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) has been tempting the unemployed to undertake bombing missions that have become increasingly coordinated across Iraq over the past few weeks.
This suggests that the sustainability of the 'surge' operation undertaken by US forces in alliance with local Sunni tribes in 2006-07 is now being undermined by economic as well as political factors. From 2007, the largely successful aim was to clear Iraq of foreign insurgents, the better to focus on internal reconciliation in Iraq. Now, the recruitment base for insurgents appears to be more local and Iraqi, especially among Sunnis concerned that their support for Ayad Allawi in the March elections will not now result in a more balanced and less Shia-dominated, central government.
A return to the reconstruction effort is central to rebalancing this situation, where the US's focus on security has not been matched by the completion of civilian infrastructure works. Unfinished water purification, sewage treatment and electricity-generating projects are still necessary to the creation of jobs and the non-oil economy in all of Iraq's regions, with the exception of Iraqi Kurdistan. With no clear sense of where and from whom their funding sources are entering Iraq, AQI has been able to exploit the fragility of local politics and the economy, to tempt US forces into taking retaliatory action, or to urge Iraqi forces into doing so, at a time when Iraqi intelligence capabilities are still in their infancy.
AQI has still not regained the destructive impact it had in 2007, but arguably it doesn't need to. All AQI needs to do is highlight the continuing gaps in the Iraqi security forces' capacity to guarantee public safety, and focus attacks on would-be recruits to both the police and army, as also occurred in late August 2010. The only way to mitigate this, apart from removing AQI's economic incentives, is to improve local and national intelligence into AQI's support networks: a task that is likely to prove harder over the medium to long term unless the remaining US forces dedicate considerable capacity to this end.
A shorter version of this article originally appeared in the Homeland Security Policy Institute Commentary Series.