THE PLANK OCTOBER 23, 2009
When Obama was running for president last year, he chided Republicans for taking their eye off the ball in Afghanistan. Now that we’re all appropriately obsessed with each new installment in the AfPak saga, it seems Americans (and the media) are paying less attention to Iraq. So here’s a quick primer of the most recent developments in the United States' other ongoing conflict, for those who are having trouble following more than one war at a time:
Oil--Although Iraq has vast reserves, its shoddy infrastructure has ensured that it’s still pumping oil at far below capacity. The country’s first effort in June to increase capacity (and, by extension, its shrinking government coffers) by rewarding outside contracts to oil companies was a disaster. A combination of continued instability and violence, high extraction taxes placed on oil companies, and an uncertain legal climate (the hydrocarbons legislation currently on the books is a Saddam-era holdover and may well be thrown out when a new oil revenue-sharing bill is taken up next year) was enough to scare off most investors. Now, however, Reuters notes that sweetened terms are making the next round of bidding in December look a lot more promising, while Bloomberg reports that Iraq may be close to signing a few big deals reached through direct negotiations.
Elections--Afghanistan’s recent election and its fallout have been fiascos, and now, Iraq is showing signs of trouble in the lead-up to its own national contest in January. The Christian Science Monitor reports that an election law scheduled to pass on October 15 is instead being held up in parliament. The brouhaha centers on two issues: Kurd-Arab disputes over representation for the city of Kirkuk, and whether the ballot should employ an open-list system that allows voters to choose individual candidates or a closed list, like the one employed in the last election, which only lists political parties.
Troops--For all the talk of shifting focus from Iraq to Afghanistan, The New York Times points out that, by the end of October, the United States will still have approximately 120,000 troops in Iraq (only a 23,000 decrease since January). Most of the big withdrawals are scheduled for next year and predicated on a successful election in January. Accomplishing the withdrawal by the end of 2010 will be a logistical nightmare, fraught with the perils of maintaining security while rapidly paring down troop presence. What’s more, the United States faces the difficult question of whether it is sufficiently safe and cost-effective to haul out of the country all of the equipment that we’ve imported to military bases there since the 2003 invasion. Military officials say that plans are on track, but, as in Afghanistan, a lot hinges on the upcoming election.