By KIMBERLY KAGAN
AND FREDERICK W. KAGAN
Vice President Joe Biden recently told Larry King that Iraq "could be one of the great achievements of this administration." Mr. Biden's transparent attempt to take credit for Bush administration policies aside, it's worth asking how exactly does the Obama administration define success in Iraq?
Mr. Biden said, "You're going to see a stable government in Iraq that is actually moving toward a representative government," echoing President Obama's remarks at Camp Lejeune in February 2009. But he also said, "You're going to see 90,000 American troops come marching home by the end of the summer," echoing the only comment the president made about Iraq in last month's State of the Union address: "I promised that I would end this war, and that is what I am doing as president."
The problem is that progress in Iraq is not as inevitable as Mr. Biden suggests. Iraq faces a political and constitutional crisis weeks away from the most important election it will ever hold. People working on behalf of Iran are actively seeking to spoil this election. They want to exclude Sunni leaders from the next government, align Iraq's Shiites into a single political bloc, expel American forces, and create a government in Baghdad that is dependent on Tehran.
Success remains possible, but only if the Obama administration abandons the campaign rhetoric of "end this war" and commits itself to helping Iraqis build a just, accountable, representative government. It needs to establish long-term security ties that will bind our two states together, including the continuing deployment of American military forces in Iraq if the Iraqis so desire.
Many fundamental questions will be answered this year about how Iraq is to be governed that will shape its development for decades. Is the election free, fair and inclusive? Do all communities emerge from it with leaders who they feel represent them? Is there a peaceful transition of power? What is the relationship between the central government and provincial governments? What role will the military play in the evolving political system? Does Iran get to vet Iraqi political candidates? What relationship will the U.S. have with Iraq over the long term?
Tehran seems to know what answers it wants regarding Iraq's future. Iranian officials, including President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki and Chairman of the Assembly of Experts Ayatollah Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, worked doggedly in 2009 to rebuild the coalition of the three major Iraqi Shiite parties that had run in 2005 as a bloc. That effort failed when Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki refused to join.
The Iranians then actively but unsuccessfully lobbied for Iraq's parliament to pass a closed-list election law in October 2009 in which the people could not choose particular candidates, seeking to increase their control of political parties and thus electoral outcomes.
On Jan. 7, 2010, when Foreign Minister Mottaki visited Iraq, the Accountability and Justice Commission (which was established in August 2003 to vet individuals who might serve in the government for links to the Baath Party) announced that it was banning more than 500 candidates from the upcoming parliamentary elections. They included some of the most prominent Sunni leaders who had been running on cross-sectarian lists.
Ahmed Chalabi, a leading member of the Iranian-backed Shiite list, helped drive the ban through the commission. So did Ali Faisal al-Lami. Mr. Lami was arrested in 2008 for orchestrating an attack by the Iranian proxy group Aseeb Ahl al Haq (AAH) that killed six Iraqis and four Americans in Sadr City. AAH splinters re-activated its military activities, after a year long cease-fire, by kidnapping an American contractor on Jan. 23. AAH is nevertheless running candidates such as Mr. Lami for parliamentary seats.
But politics is by no means Tehran's only sphere of influence in Iraq. The Iranian armed forces violated Iraqi sovereignty on at least two occasions in 2009—U.S. forces shot down an Iranian drone in Iraqi territory in March 2009, and Iranian troops ostentatiously seized an Iraqi oil well in December 2009 as the Iraqis completed a round of international oil bids.
Against this continuous Iranian campaign of engagement, intimidation and political machinations, the Obama administration has offered little more than moral support. In practical terms, this administration has done little to implement the nonmilitary aspects of the Strategic Framework Agreement (SFA) that would signal an American commitment to Iraq.
On the security side, the administration has wisely abided by the Iraqi insistence that we withdraw our forces from Iraq's cities, conduct all military operations only in partnership with Iraqi forces, subordinate all of our military operations to Iraqi legal processes, and generally respect Iraqi sovereignty.
But it has remained publicly inflexible about the withdrawal of U.S. combat forces and the ending of all U.S. combat missions by August of this year. Those specific requirements were imposed solely and unilaterally by the Obama administration and were never part of the international agreements between the U.S. and Iraq. The time line for drawing down U.S. forces and changing their mission in 2010 must be based upon the conditions on the ground, not arbitrary deadlines.
The U.S. has steadfastly refused to discuss a long-term military partnership with Iraq beyond 2011, despite the fact that the Iraqi military will not be able to defend Iraq on its own by then. It has refused fully to increase civilian efforts in order to accomplish tasks that had been performed by military forces now withdrawing. It has reduced funding for the Commander's Emergency Response Program, which allows the military to provide "urgent humanitarian relief and reconstruction" projects, as well as for other forms of humanitarian and security assistance.
Despite the vice president's many trips, the administration has consistently defined success as complete disengagement. Many Iraqi leaders interpreted the SFA as an indication that their country would develop a special relationship with the U.S. Instead, the Obama administration has given them every reason to believe that they will be—at best—just another country in the Middle East.
Success in Iraq has been very real, and there is every prospect that it can continue. Nevertheless, American military forces continue to play a vital role in Iraq's development. They are engaged in peacekeeping operations along the Kurd-Arab seam. They continue to support Provincial Reconstruction Teams and, thereby, a large portion of the U.S. civilian efforts. They are the ultimate guarantors of the upcoming Iraqi elections. And they ensure Iraq's survival in the face of continuing Iranian military aggression. They also provide the U.S. with continuing leverage at a critical period in Iraq's political development, if we choose to use it.
Mr. Biden's comments and the administration's actions suggest that Iraq is on a glide-path to success even as U.S. forces are on a glide-path to withdrawal. The reality is different.
The situation in Iraq is dynamic and evolving, and the U.S. cannot take any outcome for granted. Active American engagement will continue to be vital to achieving a just, accountable, representative government in Iraq, especially as Iranian senior leaders actively attempt to undermine the democratic, secular and cross-sectarian political process that has emerged in Iraq since 2008.
Ms. Kagan is the president of the Institute for the Study of War and the author of "The Surge: A Military History," published by Encounter Books. Mr. Kagan is a resident scholar and director of the Critical Threats Project at the American Enterprise Institute.