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CNAS’s Nagl on Iraq

Another year, another position paper from the Center for a New American Security on Iraq. The previous bunch of CNAS Iraq position papers were authored by Michele Flournoy, now the undersecretary of defense for policy; Jim Miller, now the principle deputy undersecretary of defense for policy; Colin Kahl, now the deputy assistant secretary of defense for the Middle East; and Shawn Brimley, now a special assistant to Flournoy. So when CNAS President (and Iraq veteran) John Nagl writes about Iraq, it’s safe to assume he’ll have a captive audience inside the Pentagon.

Nagl’s paper, which can be downloaded here and will apparently be formally released on Thursday, is about U.S. involvement in Iraq after the occupation ends. I’ll have more to say about this later — on Thursday I’ll be at CNAS’s annual conference, where hopefully I can chat with Nagl about the paper — but on first glance a few things stand out. Nagl accepts the “clear Iraqi desire to reduce America’s role in their country” and predicates his paper on how to secure American interests in Iraq — such as “regional stability and security, counterterrorism, and the advancement of democratic governance,” he writes, and he might have mentioned oil — without a costly and unpopular troop presence. Most of his mechanisms are diplomatic and economic, and he advocates a sustained advisory presence from civilian elements of the U.S. government in order to bolster Iraq’s still-fragile institutions.

On the security side, Nagl urges “rethinking the emphasis on security-force assistance,” by which he means a U.S. military partnership with the Iraqi security forces that’s primarily a matter of educating an officer corps at U.S. military and police schools, rather than continuing to build them up in the field. The (seeming) exception, though, is this blink-and-you’ll-miss-it reference:

The economic downturn has hindered the Iraqis’ current efforts to fully modernize their forces and develop supporting capabilities, making continued U.S. assistance even more crucial. This is particularly true in more technical arenas such as the development of the air and naval forces necessary to defend Iraq’s territory and Persian Gulf oil infrastructure. Developing such capabilities always required some level of American support beyond the SOFA deadline, but now the United States may need to provide continued air and naval protection for an extended period beyond 2011.

I’m not sure what exactly Nagl’s envisioning here. Would this be an offshore presence post-withdrawal, whereby U.S. Air Force and Naval assets overfly Iraqi airspace as necessary and maintain access to the Persian Gulf? Or does he mean something that would take place inside the country, with U.S. planes maintaining bases in Iraq and ships patrolling its waterways? If he means the latter, I’m not sure how he reconciles that with his recognition earlier in the paper that the “Iraqi government takes [troop withdrawal] deadlines seriously and shows no intent to modify them.”

Additionally, the paper doesn’t give any cost estimates for Nagl’s proposals. This isn’t meant as a backdoor criticism of the merits of his proposals. But Nagl recognizes early in the paper that there’s a “lack of U.S. public support for resource-intensive nation-building projects” that impose “serious constraints on the U.S. commitment to Iraq, particularly in a time of economic distress.” His advisory-centric agenda hardly seems to amount to “resource-intensive nation-building projects,” but it’ll still impose *some *costs on the budget. It’s hard to debate whether his proposals are worth the costs if it’s not clear what the costs are.

I’ll try and get some clarity on these questions at Thursday’s CNAS conference.

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