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Iraqi Lawmakers Evaluate Long-awaited U.S. Security Deal

November 17, 2008 at 6:25 PM EDT
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Iraqi lawmakers began debate Monday over a security agreement that will allow U.S. forces to remain in the country until the end of 2011. Analysts discuss the plan's details and remaining obstacles to its approval.
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GWEN IFILL: Now, Iraq and the United States sign a new security agreement months in the making. If the Iraqi parliament approves it, U.S. forces will leave Iraqi cities next year and will be largely out of the country by the end of 2011.

For more, we go to John Nagl, a retired Army officer and now a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security, and Feisal Istrabadi, he served as Iraq’s deputy representative to the United Nations and is now a visiting professor of law at Indiana University in Bloomington.

Mr. Nagl, what do we think this agreement achieves?

JOHN NAGL, Center for a New American Security: This agreement is very important. I was in Iraq in July and August just a couple of months ago. The security situation on the ground is far, far better than it was when I was fighting there a few years ago.

But there is still going to be a need for Americans to help the Iraqis secure their country, I think for a number of years. And what this agreement does is provide the legal framework within which American forces can operate safely and legally, so this is incredibly important both for Iraq and for the United States.

GWEN IFILL: How significant — do you agree with that, Feisal Istrabadi?

FEISAL ISTRABADI, Indiana University: Well, it is an important agreement. Yes, I agree with Colonel Nagl.

I think that the — I was also in Baghdad in July and August. And it certainly was an improved situation over the last time I was there a year ago. I should point out that the security situation has begun to deteriorate somewhat in the capital since some of the surge forces have been withdrawn.

It is an important agreement. As you point out, this agreement provides for the presence of U.S. forces.

The problem, it seems to me, is that the Iraqi government is being overly optimistic as to when it will be able to take over the security function. As I said, the security situation already seems to be beginning to deteriorate somewhat over what it was this summer.

And I for one, although I’m no expert, as Colonel Nagl certainly is — but I am skeptical that the Iraqis will be able to take over security in the cities by June of 2009, which is what the agreement calls for.

Baghdad politics affect agreement

John Nagl
Center for New American Security
The far-term outlook is also, I think, far too rosy in this agreement. The agreement says that all American forces will be gone by 2011, full stop, no possibility for renegotiation. And that's, frankly, absurd.

GWEN IFILL: Well, let me ask that question to John Nagl. Are you as optimistic anyway that the Iraqis are ready to fulfill what this agreement might require?

JOHN NAGL: No, not at all. The fact is that there's an awful lot of domestic politics being played in Baghdad right now with this agreement.

But in some cities, I believe, American forces will be able to withdraw by June of this coming year, as the agreement says. But in other cities, I think there are going to have to be negotiations and American forces will be required to stick around for a while to guarantee security.

The far-term outlook is also, I think, far too rosy in this agreement. The agreement says that all American forces will be gone by 2011, full stop, no possibility for renegotiation. And that's, frankly, absurd.

The Iraqis are currently negotiating with the United States to buy M-1 tanks, F-16 fighter planes. They need those. This is a dangerous neighborhood Iraq lives in. And it's going to need that kind of security apparatus for the future. But it's not going to have them in place and be able to maintain them and fly those planes themselves by 2011.

So there's an awful lot of domestic politics in this agreement. And I can understand where that's coming from, but I see the need to renegotiate some of this on the behest of the Iraqis in years to come.

GWEN IFILL: In fact, Iraq doesn't really have an air force at this point, does it?

JOHN NAGL: It has an air force, but it currently has no jet aircraft. And F-16s are the appropriate aircraft for Iraq to have to defend itself against external threats, but it takes a good five years to train an instructor pilot and that's an instructor pilot who already knows English.

So this process that Iraq is beginning of becoming fully sovereign and guaranteeing its own security is going to take a number of years into the future. And I see America having an interest in providing assistance as Iraq increasingly becomes sovereign and able to stand on its own.

Withdrawal negotiations to continue

Faisal Istrabadi
Indiana University
I agree with the colonel. I think that we're looking at a fairly -- I was going to say long-term, but, anyway, intermediate term, at least for the next five years or so, of a U.S. presence in Iraq in some fashion.

GWEN IFILL: Let me ask Feisal Istrabadi about that. To what degree is 2011, in your interpretation, a full stop? And how much of it is the beginning of -- there will be a residual force that stays and monitors or watches out for diplomatic installations, that sort of thing?

FEISAL ISTRABADI: Well, I'm smiling, because I heard Colonel Nagl say that -- something about it's full stop, no negotiations, or something to that effect. And, of course, in the Middle East there's no such thing as a cessation of negotiations.

So the document does not allow for an extension, but that's not to say that, after elections in 2009, and we're up for parliamentary elections in Iraq in December of 2009, that's not to say that that can't be renegotiated. And I suspect that it will be.

There's certainly -- I mean, the agreement does not bar the possibility of an extension, and I think that a rational policy in Washington and in Baghdad will require a renegotiation on this point.

I agree with the colonel. I think that we're looking at a fairly -- I was going to say long-term, but, anyway, intermediate term, at least for the next five years or so, of a U.S. presence in Iraq in some fashion.

GWEN IFILL: Well, I want you to go look backwards on that a little bit. When you talk about negotiations, these negotiations just to get to this point took some time. What was going on?

FEISAL ISTRABADI: Yes. Well, I think several things were going on. One is, you know, I think it was Dr. Johnson that said that patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel.

I think that the current government of Iraq, which has presided over a precipitous fall in the provision of services, in oil production and so on, and has only seemingly been able to provide for sectarianism and corruption, has had to resort to this sort of jingoistic nationalism in an effort to establish its bona fides with the electorate, which it will be facing in January for governor elections and in December of '09 for parliamentary elections.

So I think there was a tremendous amount of smoke and mirrors in an attempt on the part of this government to burnish its nationalist credentials to cover the fact that it has fundamentally failed to provide services, it has failed to engender reconciliation between Iraq's various communities, it has failed to take advantage, for instance, as it should have, when the price of oil hit $150 a barrel. Oil production continues to be low, and so on.

America's role in negotiations

John Nagl
Center for New American Security
I just think we could have gotten a better deal a little earlier, had we not guaranteed Iraq at the start that we were going to give them what they wanted anyway, which is a continued American security presence.

GWEN IFILL: Let me ask John Nagl about that. That's a fairly harsh assessment of the Iraqi role in this. What about the American role in this?

JOHN NAGL: Well, the United States has also not covered itself with glory in these negotiations. And I mean no disrespect to the people who've actually been doing the negotiating, some of whom are friends of mine who've done extraordinary work, but we gave up our primary negotiating lever at the start of the negotiations when we guaranteed that we would remain in Iraq longer than the Iraqis wanted us to.

In fact, by disagreement, what we are doing is doing something I believe is in the United States' national interest, but is clearly even more in Iraq's interest.

But we are putting the lives of our young men and women at risk. We are spending our dollars to provide security for Iraq. And we always had the potential of saying, "Here we go no further or we walk away from the deal."

GWEN IFILL: Does it affect our leverage -- pardon me -- does it affect our leverage with Iran in any way?

JOHN NAGL: The negotiations and this agreement, keeping American forces, American advisers in Iraq, is, in fact, another lever against Iran, as well. So the Iranians actually are not happy about this deal, but it is clearly something that's in the United States' interest.

I just think we could have gotten a better deal a little earlier, had we not guaranteed Iraq at the start that we were going to give them what they wanted anyway, which is a continued American security presence.

Iran watching deal closely

Faisal Istrabadi
Indiana University
The Iranians have had tremendous influence with at least certain sectors of this government. From what I understand, there's a certain at least -- if not endorsement, at least a kind of a tacit agreement with the agreement as it is.

GWEN IFILL: And briefly, Mr. Istrabadi, on the Iran question, has leverage been fundamentally altered by this agreement?

FEISAL ISTRABADI: Well, again, I hate to keep saying it, but I think that Colonel Nagl's assessment is correct.

I think one of the odd things about what has occurred in Iraq over the last three or four years is that the United States has allied itself with the faction in the Iraqi political spectrum that is most closely allied with Iran, so that, by a kind of property of transitivity, the United States is allied with Iran, at least in Iraq.

The Iranians have had tremendous influence with at least certain sectors of this government. From what I understand, there's a certain at least -- if not endorsement, at least a kind of a tacit agreement with the agreement as it is.

We've gone from a year ago an agreement between Bush and Maliki that we would be talking about a long-term presence of the United States to signing an agreement that has to do with the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq. This has to be good news in Tehran.

GWEN IFILL: OK, we're going to leave it there. Feisal Istrabadi, John Nagl, thank you both very much.

JOHN NAGL: Thank you.