In testimony last Wednesday before the defense subcommittee of the Senate Appropriations Committee, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said “I can’t promise it,” in reference to a substantial withdrawal of U.S. troops this year. In fact, he emphasized the dangers of a too-early withdrawal, warning it could make Iraq a haven for extremists.
That could be the kind of tough-sounding statement Rumsfeld thinks is necessary to get various parties in Iraq to get serious about negotiations leading to conditions that would facilitate a U.S. withdrawal or drawdown of troops. If so, we hope it is accompanied by intensive behind-the-scenes negotiations with all parties — including Iran — with the ability to bolster a settlement that is likely to be fragile but still possible.
As George Friedman, president of the private intelligence and consulting group Stratfor.com, put it in a recent analysis, “The times will not be more propitious than they are now,” because “each party has an interest in a settlement,” with the possible exception of foreign fighters, many affiliated with al-Qaida.
It isn’t just the U.S. that has been disappointed with the way things are going in Iraq. Iran, which had an interest in encouraging Sunni insurgency early on, is unlikely to be able to make Iraq a de facto satellite because the Sunni insurgency (and Sunni voting in December) made it impossible to have a government without significant Sunni participation. The Kurds in the north will have significant autonomy but not outright independence. The Shia majority will dominate a new national government but won’t be able to control it completely.
That doesn’t sound like much, but each party can recognize that continued violence could easily make its bargaining position weaker rather than stronger in the future.
To keep the Iraq incursion from being a complete loss, the U.S. will need to be fairly sure that Iraq will not be dominated by Iran once the U.S. draws down troops. That won’t be easy, but it’s not impossible. Many Iraqis, including many Shia, now fear potential Iranian domination even more than they resent the U.S. presence.
While there might be substantial violence for awhile as the U.S. draws down its troops, the magnet for foreign fighters that U.S. troops have become will diminish in attractive power. Without the crutch of a massive U.S. presence, Iraqis will have stronger incentives to find ways to accommodate the various groups with significant power in the country. The result is unlikely to be utopian or even very democratic, but if what emerges is not an Iranian puppet and not threatening to its neighbors, that will serve core U.S. interests well enough.
Let’s hope those negotiating back channels are getting lots of traffic.