Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Michael Corbin said the U.S. will need to transition from a military security relationship with Iraq to a traditional civilian diplomatic partnership by the time the U.S. starts to withdraw troops in 2012.
He said by 2020, the U.S. hopes to fully transition the Iraqi government to one concentrated on rebuilding vital institutions rather than maintaining national security.
The Middle East Institute’s panel on “Iraq 2020” discussed the future of the country’s stability and when the United States is set to withdraw troops. Representatives from the RAND Corporation, Iraq Foundation, State Department and the Iraqi government participated.
Deborah Amos, who covers Iraq for NPR News, asked the panelists how the Iraqi government would shape up after the next elections in 2010.
“Things are changing in Iraq in a way that they haven’t changed in any of the countries I’ve had the pleasure of serving, sometimes twice,” said Corbin, who also served as the political military affairs counselor in Baghdad.
The Obama administration is focusing on two major initiatives in the process of withdrawing troops. First, the military hopes to establish stability and focus on rebuilding major institutions that deal with social issues such as education, health and poverty.
The administration also hopes to train officials within the country to maintain security and ensure fair government through a strong judiciary system, free press and fair elections.
The United States has 116,000 troops in Iraq, but that number will go down to 50,000 by August 2010 in accordance with the president’s plan, Corbin said. The U.S. will continue to have a role in rebuilding the country, but there will be fewer combat soldiers and more Foreign Service officers.
“What we’re building now is a civilian relationship that isn’t so security driven,” Corbin said. “We are going to do some traditional tried and true methods through police training, educational and cultural partnerships, and work with them not under the shadow of security concerns.”
He said most Iraqis, other than radical sectarians, believe the country should have a continued partnership with the United States.
Michael Corbin, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State
Rend al-Rahim Francke of the Iraq foundation envisions a tough future for the next Iraqi government. She said sectarian division within the government is a continued threat even though sectarian violence has decreased since the uptick in violence in 2006 and 2007.
“In Washington circles, there has become a myth that Iraq is becoming a normal country. But Iraq is anything but normal,” she said.
Although violence continues to plague Baghdad, she said the aim of the violence has shifted from one of annihilating the government to shaping its future.
“The violence today isn’t meant to overthrow the new state but to mold it to the will and image of what the perpetrators wish,” al-Rahim Francke said.
The strong division between major groups in Iraq, including the Kurds, Arabs, Sunnis and Shiites will pose a problem in creating a centralized, uniform government.
Former Iraqi Minister of Trade and Defense Ali Allawi said Iraq has seen significant change within the last fifty years, so it’s almost impossible to “stick one’s neck out and predict its future.”
“If I had to stick my neck out, I’d say sectarianism would take over the new government. Kurds will vote for Kurds, Arabs for Arabs and so on,” he said.
These disorganizations in the system have the potential to undermine security, especially when the insurgency hasn’t fully died out.
“Another very threatening element is the weak institutions of the state. The Iraqi people are getting extremely unhappy about this,” al-Rahim Francke said.
Panelists agreed that the future of Iraq depends on a strong intelligence system that detects potential terrorist attacks and the willingness of different groups to come together for a unified government.
“Right now, there’s a lack of definition of what this new state is and what are its characteristics,” al-Rahim Francke said. “There’s a power vacuum in Iraq, and it will be filled by competing international powers who want to fill it. Invitation for interference will always be there if there is no stable government.”