From a strict COIN perspective, the grade on Washington's post-withdrawal strategy in Iraq can skew in two directions.
The argument for passing marks - "excellence" in COIN hinges on the war's beginning - is that a surge in U.S. forces, resources and diplomacy (coupled with many indirect and unrelated politico-military events) prevented a descent into open civil war. This tenuous equilibrium still exists today as Iraq's power brokers try to contain their quarrels inside the political arena, and the country shows no evidence of an impending plunge into total war. Chronic economic and utilities shortages juxtapose with a gradual reopening of Iraq's street life, filled with people that detest war and are searching for a brighter future.
However this argument is only persuasive without the other half. While Iraq "could be worse," its political status could also be healthier if guided by responsible U.S. diplomacy. Instead the opposite occurred. With a role-reversing draw of Afghanistan's surge coming into effect in 2009, the Obama administration moved Iraq's war out of America's consciousness to clear more room for his economic platform. What started as an easy attack against George Bush and remains a fulfilled campaign promise, according to the White House, eventually became a liability outside of President Barack Obama's ceremonial exit. The administration's inability to extend Iraq's Status of Forces Agreement (Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki didn't bring an amendment to parliament because he never had the votes) was then flipped around by Republicans demanding a residual force, clouding what should have been a deeper debate on Iraqi policy.
Iraqis generally expressed a desire to maintain diplomatic relations with America as U.S. troops withdrew from their country, but questionable and erroneous political moves litter Washington's exit roads. First al-Maliki was promoted to a second term after U.S. officials, leery of initially stepping into 2010’s parliamentary election, belatedly intervened on his behalf. Ayad Allawi's winning Iraqiya was temporarily placated by the Irbil Agreement, a U.S.-sponsored proposal that allocated key positions to his party, but al-Maliki has yet to cede the Interior/Defense Ministries or assign Allawi to his national security role. By the time Obama welcomed al-Maliki to the White House in December 2011 and praised his leadership, Iraqiya was already organizing a boycott and collectively primed to explode.
Sunni and Kurdish powers have steadily soured on U.S. diplomacy and joined forces with a patient Muqtada al-Sadr to prepare a no-confidence motion against al-Maliki.
In response, the Obama administration consistently advocates "dialogue" to a problem that is beyond negotiations and compromise: al-Maliki must cede the powers he unconstitutionally holds. Iraq now hangs in a vulnerable state of suspended animation, pricked daily by an al-Qaeda cell that refuses to quit, and too frequently rocked by Sunni-Shia hostilities. A wobbly al-Maliki can barely stand on his own, despite his best efforts to consolidate power, and is surviving with special help from Washington and Tehran. This is the war that Obama has declared over in his campaign speeches, the model that U.S. officials use to help explain "his" transition out of Afghanistan.
"And I'm proud that I kept the promise I made to you in 2008 - we have ended the war in Iraq. (Applause.) We are transitioning out of Afghanistan. So I want to start doing some nation-building here at home. (Applause.)"
Although the administration must be feeling more anxiety than U.S. officials reveal, Washington's public reaction towards Iraq's present crisis is no less unimpressed than al-Maliki's misguided belief. Having spent all of his energy defending himself and slinging attacks back at Iraq's opposition, al-Maliki has demonstrated no sincere willingness to implement the Irbil Agreement and divest his authority over Iraq's security forces. He, like Washington, is daring a time-tomb to keep ticking, but the day that a no-confidence brawl erupts took another step forward after al-Maliki redirected his opposition's latest attacks. Following Parliamentary Speaker Osama al-Nujaifi's announcement that, "the political powers that presented their desires... to withdraw confidence from his excellency the prime minister are continuing their procedures," al-Sadr reiterated his calculated position along Iraq's Shia fault lines: “I do not support a no-confidence vote if it hurts the Iraqi people. But the no-confidence (vote) is not what has delayed the government from doing its duty.”
“If the head is reformed, everything beyond it is reformed,” the cleric added, tipping his final preference.
al-Sadr, Allawi, and Kurdish President Massoud Barzani have done everything possible to organize their no-confidence vote under a self-defense argument. Seeking to avoid the chaos and blame that could result from a premature election, they claim that al-Maliki has left them no other option to enforce the Irbil Agreement. Now al-Maliki is playing the same card, "forced to call for early elections... if you don’t accept dialogue," in the words of media adviser Ali al-Moussawi. Whether al-Maliki can persuade President Jalal Talabani to approve his motion remains unknown - Talabani has functioned as brakes on the Iraqiya-Kurd-Sadr alliance - but his game of chicken is certain to intensify Baghdad's political battle.
al-Maliki will presumably take his chances in a new election and, in the event of civil disorder, blame his opponents for the instability. Or he could manufacture his own.
Considering the fact that high-stakes conflicts are prone to flaming out, as each side maneuvers to avoid a worst-case scenario, Iraqis may dodge the need to hold another election before 2014. al-Maliki could choose survival and turn over his excess powers, a logical course of action for a head of state. However Iraq's crisis has simmered for years and boiled for months, and neither side has given any real hint of backing down. Both powers believe that they can ultimately force the other into submission, an equation that suggests an eventual confrontation in parliament. The Obama administration must be willing to acknowledge the magnitude of Iraq's current events as they escalate, and to weigh the potential benefits of a no-confidence vote against the risk of losing al-Maliki.
Supporting a man widely considered to be a dictator is contributing to Iraq's instability, violating its sovereignty and obstructing relations with historic friends. This is no exit strategy to be proud of - this is a policy in need of urgent repair.