The US must fund and support Iraq's security forces, says FPI Executive Director Jamie Fly and Policy Advisor John Noonan

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Heading out on the election trail, the Senate left behind a critical piece of business that could affect national security and U.S. interests in the Middle East for decades to come.

In August, the last U.S. combat forces left Iraq, leaving behind a liberated nation. A few months before the final elements of the U.S. Army’s 4th Stryker Brigade were crossing the Kuwait border, the Senate Armed Services Committee rejected the Obama administration’s request for $1 billion to fund the Iraqi security forces. This denial was on top of a $550 million cut from the supplemental to cover State Department funding for the sustainment of a strong U.S. diplomatic presence there. 

The Senate will have a chance to restore funding for Iraqi security forces if the defense authorization act is brought back for consideration during the lame-duck session after the elections.

Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.) justified his decision to halve our investment in Iraq’s security by pointing to figures — recently confirmed by the Government Accountability Office — reflecting a surplus in Baghdad’s budget. What he failed to mention is that those funds are already committed to paying off Iraq’s national debt.

Helping Iraq pay its bills during a period of U.S. economic turmoil may seem unnecessary. But it is useful to remember that this is a modest investment in the health of a fragile ally, in the center of a volatile region, whose stability is critical to U.S. interests.

The United States has expended considerable blood and treasure in Iraq. Though impressive economic, political and military gains have been made in recent years, the Baghdad government remains weak. It still relies on the United States for a broad spectrum of critical support tasks, without which years of progress would unravel. Iraq has nearly a half-million security forces but still cannot protect its own borders, control its airspace or adequately protect crucial economic nodes like oil pipelines and ports.  

Iraq is likely to require years of training and force modernization to wean its army and police off U.S. logistical and intelligence support, years more for those units to stand unassisted against foreign and domestic threats. Given Iraq’s difficult region, it is likely to require a well-trained, well-equipped military to defend Baghdad’s territorial integrity and afford its citizens the opportunity to prosper.

To shortchange this effort risks unraveling the hard-won gains created by the U.S. troop surge. It might even mean that Iraq could revert to the internecine conflict that plagued the country in the years after the U.S. invasion in 2003.

While Baghdad’s political system has made important gains since 2008, this progress is not irreversible — even with last Friday’s news that Iraq’s Shiite bloc is prepared to press ahead in forming a national government.

Democracy is still a new concept in the Middle East. Building a sturdy political infrastructure, educating the public on how a parliamentary system works, restoring faith in the courts and police and protecting those institutions from internal and external threats are likely to require time and patience. Studies have demonstrated that post-conflict nations are particularly susceptible to relapse into civil war — especially in states with precious resources like oil.

Iraq, as a weakened state, is particularly vulnerable to foreign involvement. While Washington stood back in the aftermath of March’s parliamentary elections, other countries in the region have been pushing their agendas. Crafting strong political and security institutions is critical to prevent the influence of countries like Syria and Iran from gaining sway.

This outcome can be avoided and the integrity of Iraq’s institutions preserved, but only with proper resourcing, training and logistical support. Given Iran and Syria’s track record of proliferation of violence and instability throughout the wider Middle East, the United States cannot afford to sit on the sidelines as these dangerous regimes undermine our fledgling ally.

Washington must forge strong diplomatic, economic and military ties with Iraq. That means funding security forces that were disbanded and decimated by U.S. forces in 2003, pledging our commitment to stand by our Iraqi friends and guarding the stability that was achieved on the shoulders of American courage and bravery.

Despite tough economic times here at home, providing Iraq with lasting stability is a mission too important to be nickel-and-dimed. Preventing civil war and anarchy in such a volatile region is as imperative today as it was before the surge in 2007.

The consequences of underfunding Iraq’s march toward stability and prosperity would be dire. But the benefit for the United States in having a strong, prosperous ally in the heart of the Middle East is likely to be bountiful and lasting.

Despite campaigning on a platform to end the war in Iraq, President Barack Obama has courageously bucked many in his party and overseen a protracted withdrawal. After some initial unwillingness to engage in the rough-and-tumble of Iraqi coalition formation, the administration now appears to be helping to broker a moderate coalition that could lead the country.

“Because of our troops and civilians, and because of the resilience of the Iraqi people,” Obama said in his Aug. 31 Oval Office address, “Iraq has the opportunity to embrace a new destiny, even though many challenges remain.”

It is in U.S. interests to help Iraq embrace this new destiny. We have won the war in Iraq. Now it is time to win the peace.

- Originally written for the Politico

Mission Statement

The Foreign Policy Initiative seeks to promote an active U.S. foreign policy committed to robust support for democratic allies, human rights, a strong American military equipped to meet the challenges of the 21st century, and strengthening America’s global economic competitiveness.
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