Thursday, August 26, 2010

State-building in Iraq has Just Begun

I was going to wait until Obama made his upcoming speech on the American removal of “combat troops” from Iraq, leaving only 50,000 support specialists in the country, until I posted a piece on Iraq and the future of the American mission there. I will likely comment on Obama’s statements next week, but I felt there was a number of other points concerning the state-building process that should be addressed on their own.

A lot has been made in American media circles and chattering classes of Fourth Army Brigade’s pullout from Iraq. Technically speaking, the U.S. has now removed all of its combat troops from the country, although this fact does not represent the reality of the situation or the strategic and social investment America maintains in the country. As Max Boot points out:
Going forward, most remaining U.S. troops will not serve in "combat" but will be part of what the military calls "advise and assist brigades." The distinction is largely artificial, crafted to show that the promised American withdrawal is on schedule. Fifty thousand soldiers will retain substantial combat capacity whether they are designated as "advisers," "combatants" or "tourists." And some of them, especially in elite antiterrorism units, will continue to operate at the pointy end of the spear.”
There are still reasons to celebrate this feat, even if the “pullout” is largely emblematic. The Surge strategy did more than increase the number of troops in Iraq, but adopted a counter-insurgency strategy that reflected the need to put Iraqi community protection at the forefront of the U.S. military efforts in the country. This put American soldiers at a much greater risk of being attacked and killed, but appeared to create a window of opportunity for Iraqi civil society to function. No longer having American troops patrolling Iraqi streets is a major accomplishment over the situation that existed at the end of 2006.

For Iraqis, the war is far from over. Yesterday’s attacks on numerous Iraqi civilian and military installations across the country demonstrates just how fractured and chaotic the country is, and reveals the ability of insurgent groups to execute coordinated attacks across the state. 265 Iraqi security personnel have been killed between June and August, with August being the deadliest month for these individuals in two years.

All this talk about military strategy and security also evades the pressing state-building concerns Iraq still faces. Anthony Cordesman from the Center for Strategic Studies correctly argues that Iraq and the international community is at a critical stage in the construction of a free, safe, and just Iraq. The Bush administration did not take state-building seriously in the first 4 years of the occupation (one of my main arguments in my recently completed dissertation), resulting in unnecessary bloodshed, violence, and destruction. While the Bush administration stuck with its failed light footprint approach, Iraqis suffered as insurgent groups grew in strength, and basic living necessities became scarce for the average citizen.

Many Iraqis continue to live in completely unacceptable conditions. The Wall Street Journal reports that “almost a quarter of all Iraqis live in poverty, spending less than 2,500 dinars ($2.20) per day, and possibly more are unemployed, according to a report published by the Iraqi government and the United Nations this month. The report says almost 75% of households don't have access to the public sewage system, while 80% of the potable water supply is unfit to drink. Iraq is among the top five most corrupt countries in the world, according to a 2009 report by Transparency International.”

Basic security is a central concern, without it, subsequent state-building is meaningless. But simply providing security is not enough; the international community owes it to the Iraqi people to help them rebuild a functioning state.

Prominent war backers are crowing that the U.S. has won the battle in Iraq, and can now claim victory, but that further support would encourage our new allies to remain entirely dependent on us.” There is truth in this assessment, but it misses the point. It was foolish to view the Iraqi state-building project in overly military terms in the years following 2003, and it’s foolish to see the country’s problems through that convoluted lens today. As Cordesman states, “Iraq still needs help and aid in every aspect of development, a continuing diplomatic and civil effort to help Iraqis overcome their sectarian and ethnic tensions. Defining exactly what level of US support is needed, and Iraq will accept, must wait on the creation of a new Iraqi government and giving that new government the time it needs to make such decisions. It is already clear, however, that Iraq needs immediate aid in developing its capability for governance, and economy.” It is of great moral importance that the U.S. continues to contribute to the furthering of their aims.

Iraq is at a crucial junction. I hope that with the Bush years finished and the disputes concerning the war’s justification and application behind us, the international community can stand behind Iraqis who are rebuilding their country. But they need our continued assistance, even as the media’s focus is directed elsewhere.