Ends, Ways, and Means in Iraq: 10 Issues for the Obama Administration

President-elect Barack Obama will inherit an Iraq that has experienced substantial improvements in security, but remains rife with unresolved internal issues. If not handled carefully, Iraq's fragile progress could dissolve and the country could become a dangerous foreign policy minefield for yet another American president. Here are the top 10 issues the next administration must address:

  1. Determination of Objectives: The Bush administration invested vast resources in the hopes of achieving maximalist aims in Iraq. Though the results in Iraq have clearly fallen short of those aims, the Obama administration needs to formulate a policy that is more comprehensive and nuanced than "end this war." What can the U.S. realistically achieve? What are the outcomes that the U.S. can or cannot live with? How does Iraq fit in to a cogent strategy for the broader region, including Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Iran?
  2. Approach to Withdrawal: The Status of Forces Agreement moving forward between the U.S. and Iraqi governments, combined with the urgent need for reinforcements in Afghanistan, will shape the contours of withdrawal. But what if Baghdad wants to change the schedule? Will changing conditions on the ground affect the pace and process of withdrawal? Is Washington willing to extend or accelerate the current "time horizon" if the security situation significantly deteriorates?
  3. Management of the Security Transition: Earlier attempts to transfer security responsibility to Iraqi forces in 2006 encountered many problems. Do current assessments of when provinces will be ready for transition accurately reflect conditions on the ground? Can the U.S. effectively "thin out" its forces, while maintaining robust enabling capabilities (intelligence, air support, medical evacuation) in critical areas?
  4. Development of the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF): America must help the Iraqi forces foster competence and professionalism and prevent the reemergence of sectarianism in the ranks. To make this happen, U.S. military advisors will likely be needed for years to come, particularly to help develop support capabilities that the Iraqis currently lack. Is this advisory effort effective as currently organized and prepared? How will advisors be allocated to meet growing demands in Afghanistan as well as Iraq? Can the Defense Department accelerate its Foreign Military Sales program to provide the ISF with badly-needed equipment?
  5. Sunni Reintegration: The Sunni Awakening and Sons of Iraq groups are facing an uncertain future as they transition from American control to Iraqi payroll and command structures. How can the U.S. help ensure that Sunnis are reintegrated into Iraqi society so they have a stake in the political system and do not return to the insurgency?
  6. Status of Kirkuk: Kirkuk, the oil-rich city of northern Iraq claimed by both Kurds and Arabs, will be a flashpoint for continued conflict. What role can the U.S. play to minimize the potential for re-escalation of Arab-Kurd violence over Kirkuk? Should U.S. policy emphasize indefinite postponement of this issue, broker a territorial compromise, or encourage Iraqis to "give" the city to one side and focus instead on sharing oil revenues?
  7. Dealing with Iranian influence: As Iraq's neighbor, Iran has a natural interest in influencing Iraq's domestic affairs. However, Tehran's political obstructionism and support for militants ultimately undermines Iraqi as well as American interests. How much and what types of Iranian influence in Iraqi affairs can the U.S. tolerate? How can the U.S. help Iraqis counter the most destabilizing and pernicious Iranian influences?
  8. Future of Political Relations with Iraq: How does the U.S. envision its relations with an emerging sovereign Iraq that is likely to exhibit erratic behavior on the international stage? How and to what extent should America insert itself in Iraqi politics? Should the U.S. government actively seek a balance of power between Iraq's major factions, so as to spread the risk and avoid linking itself to the fortunes of any one group? Or should it remain on the sidelines, so as to extricate ourselves as best we can?
  9. Economic Development: Iraq's economy is currently 90 percent dependent on oil exports, resulting in substantial volatility in revenue. How can the U.S. help Iraq diversify its economic base? How can the U.S. encourage greater foreign investment in the Iraqi economy beyond the energy sector? What incentives could Baghdad provide provincial and local officials to improve transparency and revenue sharing mechanisms?
  10. Return of Refugees: Huge numbers of Iraqis fled to Jordan and Syria to escape sectarian violence. Does Baghdad owe those nations financial aid? As refugees return, what is the best way to handle this influx? Is America committed to reestablishing the mixed-sect districts that existed prior to 2006? Is a level of sectarian separation necessary to keep the peace?

No panacea exists for Iraq's remaining ills, and no amount of planning will account for all of its complex and sometimes contradictory dynamics. But with America's direct influence likely to wane as its troop presence diminishes, it is increasingly important to anticipate the full spectrum of difficult issues and choices ahead, in order to devise the best way forward for the United States and Iraq.

Brian M. Burton is a research assistant at the Center for a New American Security and a graduate student at the Georgetown University Security Studies Program. John Paul Schnapper-Casteras is a predoctoral fellow at Stanford University's Center for International Security and Cooperation.