Impressions from Iraq: Part Two
See part one here.
After three and a half days of briefings, we were finally able to head into the field to speak to people. Yesterday, a group of us went to Balad to discuss the security situation with some of the troops stationed there. Although the security situation has surprisingly improved, we still had to wear body armor and helmets in the Blackhawk helicopters. Moreover, in addition to the pilots, there were two guards on board.
Besides our briefings and travel, the American and British ambassadors hosted dinners and receptions for us in the evenings, which allowed us to get insights into what's happening in the country. Next week we'll leave the embassy compound and move around the country.
Here are some more observations from the field in addition to the ones in my previous post:
- If the planning on how to go into Iraq was as good as the planning on how to get out, we would not have created such a big mess in 2003 after we invaded under false pretenses with no plan on what to do the second day we were there.
- The USAID mission, which is critical to long-term stability in Iraq, is woefully underfunded (about $400 million per year) and projected to go down in the next couple of years (to about $300 million per year).
- The U.N. assistance mission in Iraq is doing an excellent job helping internal refugees return to their homes who were displaced during the ethnic cleansing in 2006 and 2007. They estimate that 15 percent of the Sunnis displaced during the communal violence have returned-and to show you the worldwide reach of the Center for American Progress, one member of the U.N. delegation that briefed us was my former CAP colleague Adam Hinds.
- The Iraqis did us a big favor in the Status of Forces Agreement by forcing us to agree to leave the cities by June 30, 2009. Not only did this diminish U.S. casualties but it convinced many skeptical Iraqis that we were not occupiers.
- Similarly, by insisting that we leave the country completely by the end of 2011, it gave us time to plan to leave in an orderly manner and avoid the perception that we were driven out, which is part of the Al Qaeda narrative.
- We need to begin planning now to decide what kind of relationship we want to have with Iraq after 2011.
- While Iran will always have influence on Iraq, its stature has been diminished substantially by its recent fraudulent elections. And many Iraqis resent the fact that most Iranians who came here on pilgrimages spend too little and expect too much.
- Rather than complaining about Iran's role in Iraq we should accept it and try to shape it to emphasize the positive aspects-for example, Iran is one of Iraq's largest trading partners.
- If Obama decides to send more troops to Afghanistan, he can accelerate the drawdown of U.S. forces from Iraq with very little risk.
- A real but often overlooked danger of the upcoming Iraqi election in January 2010 is whether Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki will go quietly if his party loses and he does not stay in power. History tells us that only when there is a peaceful transfer of power can a country be considered a democracy.