THE prospect of a long-term security arrangement between the United States and Iraq has become a lightning rod for criticism. Yet such an agreement — which the White House believes could be completed this month now that the two countries have agreed to set a “general time horizon” for reducing the number of American troops in Iraq — would be in the best interests of the governments of both countries, and of the people who live in a region of the world that urgently needs stability.
The United Nations Security Council resolution that authorizes coalition operations in Iraq expires at the end of this year. But the calendar is not the most important reason for the United States to enter into a long-term pact with Iraq. The opportunity presented by the improved situation on the ground begs to be exploited lest it disappear in the ever-shifting sands of Middle East strife.
Are the desires of the American people and the Iraqi people different? I don’t think so. During my year in command of all American forces in the Middle East, I met often with Iraqis of all walks of life. Discussions with people — from Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki to clerics, governors and generals to men in the streets of Baghdad and towns and cities throughout the country — left me with several strong impressions. The top objective of both countries is security and stability in the region. Letting Iraq’s security forces assume responsibility for their country is another mutual goal. Withdrawing the vast majority of American and coalition troops from Iraq as soon as possible is a clear priority.
Why is achieving these aims so difficult? The most significant obstacle is war weariness. The war has dragged on so long that people are fixated on yesterday’s many negative aspects and are not aware of the profoundly different and improved situation in Iraq today — which is very different from only a few months ago.
Another major challenge is the continuing tendency to view anything to do with Iraq in the polarizing terms of yes or no, in or out. The prudent and rational approach is more nuanced, and more likely to achieve both countries’ mutual goals.
There are two key aspects of the bilateral security accord that has been proposed. The first is a status of forces agreement, which is a detailed compilation of the procedures and legal protections that govern the presence of foreign troops in another country. The second element is a higher-level strategic framework agreement, in which the two parties agree on the principles that will guide their mutual actions to create long-term security in Iraq. This more important part of the accord focuses on major policy issues like the roles and missions for each country’s military, the control of forces in various security situations, procedures for detainees, and the transition of responsibility.
Objections and objectors to the agreement are numerous. From the American side, we hear that it would tie us to an open-ended commitment to defend Iraq from external threats; that it would continue to drain resources from a faltering domestic economy; and that it violates Congressional prerogatives enshrined in the Constitution.
Some Iraqis, meanwhile, complain that any continued American presence in their country perpetuates what they see as an occupation and an infringement of their national sovereignty. They and other skeptics in the region object to the potential for long-term military bases, and they denounce America’s alleged hegemonic intentions.
And Iran objects to every aspect of continued American-Iraqi cooperation while promoting instability and supporting attacks on coalition forces in Iraq by providing arms and training to Shiite extremists and criminals.
These objections are obscuring what may be a one-time opportunity to achieve the goals so keenly desired by the majority of Americans and Iraqis, who care about peace and stability in the world. Most of the concerns involve worst-case possibilities that play to the fears of the poorly informed. For example, the security accord would define future commitments rather than perpetuate the perception of an “open-ended” engagement. The United States needs access to bases in Iraq to support the current level of operations. As responsibility for security passes to Iraqi forces, the need for bases will diminish.
Negotiators can sort through the issues. Given their recent history in Iraq, contractors and their rights and protections are a controversial topic. But civilian contractors perform a wide range of essential tasks, and the terms of their future service needs to be included in the agreement. Control of Iraqi airspace is another important component that will require clearheaded negotiations to preserve our military’s ability to ensure the safety of the many airplanes flying over Iraq and the timeliness of combat air support for troops on the ground.
The benefits that could be achieved are considerable. The agreement could reap dividends similar to those gained over the past year through the sacrifice and efforts of so many who have carried out an enlightened counterinsurgency strategy.
The number of incidents of violence nationwide in Iraq is less than a tenth of what we were experiencing in the spring of 2007. The casualty rate among American troops is the lowest in more than four years and continues to improve. Ethnic and sectarian violence among the Iraqi population has declined to levels not seen since the early days of the war.
Iraq’s security forces, with only modest coalition support, have demonstrated unprecedented initiative by taking control and assuming security of previously insurgent-dominated areas like Amara, Basra, Diwaniya and Sadr City. These actions signal a more confident and capable Iraqi leadership and military.
The government of Prime Minister Maliki has assumed an increasingly large share of the cost of Iraqi security, paying $3 for each American dollar contributed, and is on track to assume near total responsibility next year as revenues from oil exports continue to rise. Economic activity in Iraq is accelerating. Major oil companies are signing development contracts to improve the infrastructure.
The government of Iraq is eager to exert its sovereignty, but its leaders also recognize that it will be some time before Iraq can take full control of security. They are acutely aware of Iran’s behavior and of the need for continued cooperation with the United States.
This is a pivotal time. The aspirations of the hopeful could come to fruition: a stable Iraq, with a modern oil industry and substantially increased export capacity, that is part of the growing regional economic and political cooperation in the Middle East. This is not wishful dreaming but a very real possibility.
But it will happen only if security in Iraq is maintained. And a long-term arrangement with the United States is key to Iraq’s future security.
Reasonable objectors to the security pact, in both countries, must jettison the rhetorical and emotional baggage of the recent past. Forget the errors and bad decisions and deal with the present. Real progress has been made, and this positive momentum must be maintained.
Compromise, of course, will be essential. But confidence will be, too. The Americans need to trust Iraq’s security forces, and the Iraqis need to trust America’s intentions. The United States must give the Iraqi government an opportunity to demonstrate sovereignty over its territory while the government of Iraq must recognize its continued, if diminishing, reliance on the American military.
But the political posturing in pursuit of short-term gains must cease. All interested parties should cooperate for the general good.
We have come a long way in Iraq. It is in the mutual interest of the United States and Iraq to continue the transition to Iraqi forces and the drawdown of American troops in circumstances most likely to provide for stability. Certainly there is some risk involved. But the opportunity is unprecedented and the potential vast.
William J. Fallon, a retired admiral and a fellow at the M.I.T. Center for International Studies, was commander of the United States Central Command from 2007 to 2008.