Factors Contributing to Iraq's Security After U.S. Forces Withdraw

For Release

February 5, 2010

As it withdraws troops from Iraq, the United States must work not only to maintain security in that nation, but also focus on how the action will impact other regional interests, according to a study issued today by the RAND Corporation.

The study presents an analytical framework for policymakers to examine the shifting motivations and capabilities of the groups that affect Iraq's security, as well as options for U.S. responses to continuing challenges.

"Many of Iraq's problems will take generations to solve," said Terrence K. Kelly, one of the study's authors and a senior operations researcher at RAND, a nonprofit research organization. "As U.S. troops leave Iraq, it's important to take every step possible to encourage Iraqis to address these problems in a constructive fashion."

Among the major problems facing Iraq are longstanding tensions between the majority Arab population and the minority Kurds, who are located primarily in the country's oil-rich northern region.

The study recommends that U.S. forces remain in the north as long as possible and that the United States provide senior military professionals at every level to serve as "honest brokers" who can mediate disputes and develop long-term relationships with their Iraqi counterparts.

"It will be important for the U.S. government to continue to work to try to mitigate tensions on the border between the Arab and Kurdish populations, and how U.S. forces withdraw from Iraq will be more important than the rate at which they withdraw," Kelly said.

Iraq has become more stable since 2006-2007, mainly because the main political factions—Sunni, Kurd and Shi'a—are participating in the political process. At the same time, extremist violence will likely continue in Iraq, regardless of the U.S. troop drawdown. As in other war-torn countries, many of Iraq's power brokers have spent their entire adult lives relying on violence to achieve political goals and that approach is not going to vanish overnight, Kelly said.

But such violence is unlikely to escalate into large-scale conflict unless one of the main Iraqi factions—the ones with the ability to field small armies—resorts to violence to achieve political goals. The United States should use its diplomatic and military strengths to keep these major political actors in the political process.

Kelly says the current situation is more of a strategic calculation by these groups, rather than a newfound embrace of democracy. The scales could be tipped by any one of a number of factors—political disaffection, electoral failure, economic hardship or inequity, disputes over land and resources, shifts in the balance of armed power, or harsh treatment or provocation.

In addition, the United States' ability to prevent large-scale conflict has limits and will decline as its forces leave Iraq. The best leverage will be from U.S. support for improved Iraq Security Force capabilities, and then only if the Iraq Security Force acts in the interests of a unified Iraqi state, rather than any particular faction.

To that end, long-term U.S.-Iraq military cooperation should have three missions: aiding in the training, equipping, advising and operational support of the Iraq Security Force; partnering in the promotion of professional qualities in the Iraq Security Force and security ministries; and continuing to mediate between Kurd and Arab forces.

The study, "Security in Iraq: A Framework for Analyzing Emerging Threats as U.S. Forces Leave," can be found at www.rand.org. Other authors of the report are David C. Gompert, formerly of RAND, and Jessica Watkins of RAND Europe.

The study was sponsored by the Office of the Secretary of Defense and conducted within the International Security and Defense Policy Center of the RAND National Defense Research Institute, a federally funded research and development center sponsored by the Office of the Secretary of Defense, the Joint Staff, the Unified Combatant Commands, the Department of the Navy, the Marine Corps, the defense agencies and the defense Intelligence community.

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