At the beginning of 2012, internal tensions in Iraq between the autonomous Kurdish region and the country’s fractured federal government in Baghdad seemed to be dragging the young state into what many saw as an inevitable and critical standoff. However, with the collapse of efforts to oust Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, led by Kurdish President Massoud Barzani, and the establishment of a committee by the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) to handle political issues with Baghdad, the crisis seem to be cooling off for the moment.
Or rather, that’s what it appears like on the surface.
In July, as spillover from the conflict in Syria continued to affect the borders of western and northern Iraq, Kurdish Peshmerga forces and Iraqi army units came close to confrontation yet again over security responsibility for the border crossings. I remember watching on television in the living room of a friend in Erbil images of young Kurdish soldiers smiling widely and proclaiming their readiness to “lay down their lives for the Kurdish people.” Actual armed conflict seemed only a moment away.
In a rare instance of a successful direct mediation, however, US Embassy officials and representatives from the Office of Security Cooperation (OSC), responsible for defense cooperation since the withdrawal of troops last year, negotiated an agreement between KRG officials and officials in Baghdad. The agreement requires that dispatched Iraqi army troops be removed and that all forces remain in position until the Syrian crisis is over. This agreement comes amid months of US inaction in face of the explosive political crisis that rocked Iraq for months, deepened already tense sectarian and ethnic relations between Kurds, Sunni and Shia Arabs and cast doubt on whether the fledging state institutions of a post-Saddam Iraq could survive the conflict which pitted once-allied peoples against each other in a situation of complex political maneuvering and alliances that shift day by day.
Throughout the ordeal, the US was nowhere to be found, having retreated militarily and diplomatically since December, when Iraqi leaders failed to ratify a Status of Forces agreement that would have kept troops in the country. The US hasn’t had an Ambassador to Iraq since the departure of James Jeffrey in June and the embarrassing withdrawal of Obama-nominated Brett McGurk, an extraordinary amount of time for a critical country in a fragile region.
US policy to date has been an amorphous vacuum of disengaged dialogue with no strategic direction or broader regional objectives. An embassy staffer recently stated to me the official line: “The United States takes no side in the current political situation, but favors any solution that is reached by Iraqis themselves, in accordance to Iraqi law and the constitution, and is achieved in a clear and transparent manner that doesn’t promote or lead to violence.”
It begs the question: is active US mediation and engagement in the political conflicts of Iraq, a state in which thousands of American soldiers died and billions of war and reconstruction funds have been spent, necessary to achieve this vision of “compromise in a clear, transparent and peaceful manner”? The realities of this summer, and the recent negotiated resolution to the Peshmerga—Iraqi Army standoff at the Syrian border, have shown that the answer is yes. Not only is US mediation effective in resolving issues that have the potential to deteriorate into armed conflict, but it offers a compelling opportunity to restore American credibility in a country and region in which it is sorely lacking but very much needed.
The establishment of the “Supreme Negotiations Committee” by the KRG to handle all talks with Baghdad over sensitive and controversial matters, such as unilateral negations of international oil contracts, the Article 140 referendum on the status of Kirkuk, and the status of budget allocations to the KRG from the federal government, is a positive and hopeful sign that the political elite of Iraq’s elder generation may be moving towards more cooperative partnership in the new government. But the reality remains that, in a state in which, according to the Central Intelligence Agency, 40% of the population is under 14 years of age and over 60% is under 25, the true future of peace and stability in a strategically key country lies with the youth.
What specifically can and should the United States do to ensure continued credibility of US influence in Iraq and the broader region, and to help secure the viability of the Iraqi state? Firstly, appointing an Ambassador should be step number one. The US diplomatic mission to Iraq is the largest in the world; the fact that it has been leaderless (for mostly political reasons) for months now is inexcusable and has undermined support for US diplomatic efforts in the country.
Secondly, security assistance to the fledgling Iraqi national security forces and Kurdish Peshmerga forces should be adequately increased to allow both forces to address external and internal threats and the recent resurgence of Al Qaeda in Iraq. To address the recurring tensions between the forces and ensure that conflict between them never comes about, the Office of Security Cooperation at US Embassy Baghdad should encourage more joint training programs with the Iraqi Army and Kurdish Peshmerga to foster more cohesive operational relationships, especially in the disputed territories such in Kirkuk, Ninawa, and Diyala.
But most importantly, the Obama Administration must define what the US’s broader vital interests and strategic foreign policy objectives are in Iraq. This policy vacuum affects not only the future of the Republic of Iraq, but has a direct impact on the US position in the Middle East and North Africa region. It’s no secret that America is being vastly and quickly geopolitically out-maneuvered in Iraq by Iran, Turkey, the Gulf States, and even China, as Iraq quickly escapes the American public (and political) consciousness. Catching up, while not politically popular, is strategically smart and badly needed.
Christian Chung is a sophomore in Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service. He is currently working in northern Iraq as the Security and Political Reporter for the English language section of Rudaw News, with a focus on Iraqi political and security developments, Arab-Kurd relations, the political challenges faced by Iraqi ethnic groups, and security throughout the country since the American withdrawal.