Vice-President Biden has written an op-ed in today's New York Times that makes the case for sustained U.S. engagement in Iraq. It comes as the Obama administration tries to convince Congress to fund an Iraq mission that's led no longer by the military but instead by State Department diplomats.
Biden notes that the drawdown of U.S. military forces in Iraq will save taxpayers $15 billion in the coming fiscal year, and that the administration is asking for less than one-third of that to fund State's efforts and continue to train Iraqi security forces.
But it was easier to find money when Iraq was a battlefield for 100,000-plus American soldiers and the U.S. economy wasn't struggling to emerge from a recession. And in part because the administration has been eager to turn the page on Iraq - the much ballyhooed "end of combat operations" didn't mean that the remaining 49,000 U.S. troops stopped fighting - it has had difficulty explaining what the new Iraq mission is.
The message, Biden says, is that Iraq is firmly on the right track but could easily be derailed.
While many Iraqis remain skeptical about their embryonic new government - led by mostly the same faces and with many key players yet to be named - Biden argues that the framework political agreement is "the latest and strongest evidence of a key development in Iraq: over the past two years, politics has emerged as the dominant means for settling differences and advancing interests." He cites the creation of a National Council for Higher Policies, "whose responsibilities and authority are still being determined but will eventually be enshrined into law."
The council is supposed to serve as a check on the power of Nouri al Maliki, the soon-to-be-designated prime minister, whose strongman tendencies have caused some concern in Washington. But the council's constitutionality remains uncertain and its ability to exercise any real power extremely questionable.
Thankfully, however, security has improved - the weeklong Eid celebrations passed without major violence - and Biden praised Iraqi soldiers and police for taking control of security nationwide, harvesting their own intelligence and apprehending insurgent leaders. Biden reiterated the U.S. military's commitment to withdraw all its soldiers from Iraq by the end of 2011, under a U.S.-Iraqi security accord.
But, he adds, "Iraq's security forces still aren't ready to operate on their own," and then launches into a list of Iraq's major political challenges - and potential flashpoints - that is as long as it is sobering:
We must also help Iraq’s leaders with a range of challenges that lie ahead: conducting a census; further integrating Kurdish security forces into the Iraqi security forces; maintaining commitments to the Sons of Iraq, the Sunni groups that banded together against insurgents; resolving disputed internal boundaries and the future of the northern city of Kirkuk, which is claimed by both Arabs and Kurds; passing a hydrocarbon law that would distribute oil revenues and maximize the benefit to all Iraqis; stabilizing the economy through foreign investment, private sector development and new sources of revenue beyond oil; passing a fiscally responsible budget; and bringing to a close its post-Gulf war obligations to the United Nations.
In short, pretty much every difficult political question that has faced the country since 2003 remains unresolved. Iraq has an increasingly capable army and police force, and the promise of a broad-based government. Biden's piece indicates that it's going to need both, and much more, if the "new Iraq" is to hold together.
(Photo by Olivier Douliery/Abaca Press/MCT)