A recent dispatch from Iraq by The New York Times' Elisabeth Bumiller articulated something that has been true for several months now: America has moved on from the Iraq War. Much of the 2008 election was organized around that conflict. Barack Obama beat Hillary Clinton in large measure by deriding the judgment she showed in supporting the 2003 Iraq war resolution. And John McCain's public embrace of George W. Bush's policies may have doomed his campaign from the start. Few things seemed to exhilarate Obama's supporters more than his firm call for "an end" to the Iraq war. And now, just six months into Obama's presidency, and even before Obama's troop-withdrawal plan has begun in earnest, Iraq has been replaced by Afghanistan as the conflict that will probably define his presidency.
Pinning one's fate on prospects for victory in Afghanistan is daunting enough. It remains unclear, for instance, whether the Obama team has really devised a clear, long-term strategy for success there, or even defined what success might look like. But it may be that Obama will have to try and "win" Afghanistan at the same time he is trying not to "lose" Iraq.
There are two main ways in which Iraq might yet fall apart. The first would be a new sectarian fight: in effect, another round of civil war. The good news is that there is reason to think that sectarianism won't return. The brutal fight war between Iraqi Sunnis and Shiites didn't end just because of George Bush's "surge" strategy, but because Sunni leaders decided to stop fighting and worked with the U.S. military to drive out al Qaeda. (Al Qaeda attacks, like the 2006 bombing of the Shiite al-Askari Mosque at Samarra, were specifically designed to stoke sectarians.) Moreover, some analysts believe that the Sunnis understand that they have been defeated--that the Shiites now control most of the guns and money, and that it's too late to fight them.
But it's wrong to assume that rational actors will be making the decisions in Iraq as America withdrawals. The killings of the past few years have surely left a deep appetite for revenge. As the military analyst Stephen Biddle recently told NPR, "You cannot reasonably expect that people who were killing each other in large numbers and deathly frightened of one another will simply become tolerant of each other overnight, or even within two years of the most intense phase of the ethno-sectarian conflict." Sunnis have recently been chafing at the central government. Members of the 100,000-strong Sunni Awakening, who worked with U.S. forces against al Qaeda, have recently clashed with Iraqi Security Forces over claims that the Sunnis aren't getting their paychecks--a proxy for deeper distrust among Sunnis for the Shiite-led regime in Baghdad.
The Obama White House is clearly sweating over a potential second civil war. When Vice President Joe Biden, recently tasked by Obama to keep a closer eye on the country, visited Baghdad last month, he warned Iraqi leaders against that American troops wouldn't stick around to police another round of violent Shia-Sunni anarchy. But even if Iraqi leaders were listening, they do not have a monopoly on violence: A few days later, five Shiite mosques were bombed in Baghdad, killing at least 29 people.
Unfortunately, it's not only a replay of the Shia-Sunni killing spree that Obama has to worry about. There's also the very real concern that Iraq's Arabs and Kurds might go to war with one another. The two groups have never co-existed easily--Saddam expressed his feeling about Kurdish bids for independence by dropping poison gas on them. Since the U.S. invasion, the Kurds have played their cards wisely, impressing the Americans with their cooperation and ability to maintain stability in their northern home. But lately Kurdish leaders have asserted their claims to territory and oil reserves in Iraq's northern areas, particularly around the city of Kirkuk. The newly-re-elected Kurdish president, who commands some 80,000 pesh merga fighters, is scoffing at a United Nations proposal to turn Kirkuk into an automous area. Kurdish forces have recently skirmished with Iraqi troops around the city--and things could quickly get uglier if Baghdad comes to believe, as some suggest, that the Kurds are preparing for their long-sought-after independence. (A Sunday meeting between Iraqi President, Nouri al Maliki, and his Kurdish counterpart, Massoud Barzan--the first in a year--was an encouraging sign.)
Facing this delicate and complex situation is an Obama team that is not only juggling foreign challenges from Afghanistan to Iran to North Korea, but which also lacks the Bush team's depth of experience in dealing with Iraq. Obama's new ambassador to Baghdad, Christopher Hill, doesn't speak Arabic and has a background in Eastern Europe and Asia. The White House's top official focused on the Iraq war, General Douglas Lute, recently had his portfolio narrowed to Afghanistan and Pakistan. Some Iraq-watchers say that Obama's designation of Biden to focus on Iraq was an acknowledgement that U.S. policy there was suffering from drift. (Another concern: Biden doesn't exactly have a stellar record when it comes to Iraq. He made the twin errors of supporting the war but opposing the surge, and in 2006 he promoted a plan, widely opposed by Iraqis, that would have divided the country into autonomous Sunni, Shiite, and Kurdish areas.)
If Iraq does seem to be headed back towards chaos as U.S. troops withdraw, what will Obama do? It's hard to say for sure. During the campaign, he was tonally emphatic about ending America's commitment there. But he has always allowed for revisions based on the judgment of his commanders. It's awfully hard to imagine that surge architect David Petraeus would be willing to watch his gains there disappear in a maelstrom of car bombs and sectarian assassinations. If Petraeus says we need to maintain a substantial troop committment, will Obama defy him?
Moreover, the strategic calculus has changed since Obama unveiled his withdrawal plan in October 2007. Back then, American troops were dying as they policed a civil war that looked nearly impossible to resolve peacefully. Today, however, there's reason to think that it's U.S. troops who are the only thing holding Iraq together.
But Obama's Iraq calculus is complicated by something else: Afghanistan. During the campaign Obama vowed that, "[w]hen we end this war in Iraq, we can finally finish the fight in Afghanistan." It seems clear that the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, Stanley McChrystal, will soon ask Obama for more troops beyond the 68,000 troops who will be in place by fall. Jim Jones has warned U.S. generals that Obama isn't keen on sending more troops to that theater. But Obama himself has called success in Afghanistan critical, and few observers think the U.S. has currently committed the manpower needed to beat back the Taliban. With the Afghan army still years away from being able to stand independently, more U.S. troops will almost certainly needed. And the only place Obama can find those troops is in Iraq.
Ultimately what this means is that Obama may be faced with an excruciating choice: Will he use limited American military resources to stabilize Afghanistan?--or to maintain stability in Iraq? It is, ultimately, not unlike the choice faced by George W. Bush, who neglected Afghanistan not out of stupidity, but because he believed that anarchy in Iraq posed the greater threat to American security. Obama has suggested he believes the opposite to be true. If Iraq starts teetering on the brink of collapse, we'll see how firmly he believes it.