Slowly but surely, Iraq is turning a corner. In February, the Iraqi parliament approved two major measures aimed at normalising that country's fractious political scene.
The first was a 'de-Ba'athification' law paving the way for disaffected Sunnis expelled from government en masse back in 2003 to return to their former posts. The second was a legislative package that, among other things, proposed a formal delineation of powers between the country's central and local governments. If enacted, these measures hold the promise of moving the former Baʼathist state a good deal closer to a lasting national reconciliation.
This progress simply would not have been possible without the Bush administration's 'surge'. Now just over a year old, Washington ʼs shift in strategy — coupling a temporary increase in troops on the ground with a new approach to creating and maintaining security — has succeeded in stabilising Iraq's once unruly Sunni centre. It also has assisted an 'awakening' of local tribal elements, which have now begun to mount a serious political and military challenge to Al-Qaeda, animated by a clearer understanding of the terrorist group's vision for their country.
As significant as it is, however, this progress represents just one part of a larger picture. Indeed, future stability in Iraq may hinge as much on what transpires on two other strategic fronts as it does on the events now taking place in the so-called 'Sunni Triangle'.
The first lies in Iraq's north, where tensions between the quasi-autonomous Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) and neighbouring Turkey continue to simmer. The reason has everything to do with the radical, anti-Turkish Kurdish Workers Party (PKK). In the five years since Iraq's liberation, the PKK's long-running insurgency against Ankara has received a major shot in the arm. The KRG's lax approach toward its ethnic compatriots has enabled the PKK to utilise bases on its territory to mount attacks against Turkey. Iraq's central government — which has legal responsibility for curbing hostile acts emanating from its territory — has been slow to address the resulting threat to Turkish security. Washington has also been slow to react, only recently having instituted greater intelligence-sharing with Turkey, and authorising limited incursions into Iraq's north by the latter, in a belated effort to mollify officials in Ankara.
The resulting modus vivendi is fragile, to say the least. Should the PKK carry out another major terrorist attack inside Turkey, domestic pressures will compel Ankara to greater action, straining ties with both Baghdad and Washington in the process. Even in the absence of such a provocation, the limited strikes being carried out by the Turkish military on sovereign Iraqi soil are bound to become an ever greater irritant to an Iraqi central government assuming more and more security responsibilities for its own territory.
The second strategic front revolves around Iran's pervasive strategic influence in Iraq's majority-Shi'a south. Over the past two years, Tehran's assistance has expanded both the scope and the lethality of the threat posed by Iraq's Shi'a militias to the Coalition.
"The Iranian regime provides Shia militia groups in Iraq with training, funding and weapons including lethal explosively formed penetrators: a particularly deadly form of improvised explosive device," Admiral William Fallon, then head of US Central Command, confirmed to lawmakers in Washington recently.
Iran's strategic influence stretches further, however. Through a combination of deployed intelligence assets, economic assistance and political pressure, Iran has insinuated itself into everything from traffic control to microfinance in Iraq's south. In spite of the surge and a more robust presence by US military forces, the Coalition has done little to dislodge this influence. To the contrary, it appears for all the world to have acquiesced to it, much to the detriment of its ability to shape events in that part of the country.
Whoever becomes the next US president this November will need to understand — and respond to — these realities. A precipitous withdrawal from Iraq could prove ruinous, exacerbating Iraq's ethnic cleavages and erasing the substantial gains that have been made over the past year. Yet simply 'staying the course' is also not a viable option. After all, the surge was never intended as a permanent fix for Iraq's lingering instability and the US military has neither the ability nor the inclination to keep up its current, gruelling operational tempo there.
Rather, policymakers in Washington would do well to start thinking now about a follow-on strategy to the surge: one that addresses all three of Iraq's active fronts. And they would do even better to begin putting such an approach — encompassing the creation of an independent Sunni security force, the provision of greater security for Turkey, and a rollback of Iranian influence — into practice.