After eight years of U.S.-led state-building efforts, thousands of coalition force fatalities, and nearly one trillion dollars spent, Iraq is drifting toward authoritarianism under Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's Dawa Party while al-Qaeda-stoked violence is running at levels not seen in years. Although Washington's 2007 counterinsurgency strategy laid the groundwork for a pluralistic and representative government, as long as the country's current leaders have little motivation to abide by the rule of law, the future of a democratic Iraq looks grim.
As the George W. Bush administration geared up for an intervention in 2003, it debated a post-invasion plan for leaving behind a state "based on moderation, pluralism, and democracy." While Jay Garner was the administration's initial point-man for designing a transition plan, rapidly emerging political complexities prompted the administration to look to Zalmay Khalilzad, the matchmaker of Afghanistan's Bonn conference transition, to finesse the implementation. But by April 2003, the chaos of post-Saddam Iraq prompted a change in plans: L. Paul Bremer would preside over an occupation authority that would build a state from "outside-in," as described by analysts Michael R. Gordon and Gen. Bernard E. Trainor. According to Bremer's 540-day "Iraq's Path to Sovereignty" plan, a constitution would need to be drafted, elections held, and a political framework developed before any handover of sovereignty.
Ambassador L. Paul Bremer (l) and Iraqi president Sheikh Ghazi Ajil al-Yawar shake hands as U.K. Special Representative David Richmond looks on during the transfer of authority to the Iraqi Interim Government, Baghdad, June 28, 2004. However, when the Coalition Provisional Authority handed over sovereignty to the interim Iraqi government, Iraq was worse off than when the CPA had taken power.
If such an arrangement had taken place in a vacuum, the Coalition Provisional Authority's (CPA) emphasis on building the legitimacy of the nascent Iraqi state through process, elections, and box-checking would have been sound. But amid sectarian tensions and Sunni fears of disenfranchisement and retribution, process alone did little to bridge Iraq's "sovereignty gap." The CPA's fixation on procedure and sequencing overlooked a key insight highlighted by authors Ashraf Ghani and Clare Lockhart in Fixing Failed States: A "state based on the consent of citizens and legitimacy of rules is likely to be more enduring than one imposed by force." Such consent and legitimacy would not be conferred so long as mistrust and alienation held sway, leading the Iraqi population to prefer the assurances of ideological extremists and sectarian death squads over CPA formalities.
The CPA cut short its ambitious project in June 2004 when Bremer officially handed over sovereignty to an interim Iraqi government. Yet when it came to the basic criteria for statehood—a monopoly on the legitimate means of violence—Iraq was worse off than when the CPA had taken power. Over the next few years, tens of thousands of Iraqis were killed in sectarian violence as Shiite death squads tightened their grip over the infiltrated Iraqi Security Forces (ISF). There was an invisible power at play that the U.S. midwife had failed to harness; the "popular resistance," a key ingredient according to political scientist Charles Tilly's recipe for state formation, had been deemed an irreconcilable threat to Iraqi institution-building by the U.S. administration. A 2005 "Red Team" report, suggesting a military strategy of clearing, holding, and protecting the population to provide better security than that offered by local warlords, was essential to preparing the ground for long-term institution-building. This was the counterinsurgency strategy that, mixed with a surge of U.S. troops and the grassroots blowback from al-Qaeda's harsh tactics, would be able to put Iraq on a sustainable path to sovereignty.
As U.S. ambassador Ryan Crocker would later recall, the new 2007 strategy marked a realization that what mattered most in legitimizing the Iraqi state was not erasing the country's problems but creating conditions in which solutions could be worked through peacefully: "It's no surprise that [the Iraqis] will face challenges of institution building, challenges of who has what powers, tensions between communities, tensions within communities. All of these things are part of Iraq's present, and will be part of Iraq's future sectarian tensions. It's how they deal with them that, I think, is important."
A Series of Awakenings (2007-08)
By the end of 2006, al-Qaeda terrorists and Shiite death squads were inflicting record casualties on coalition troops as well as on Iraqi civilians, and the widely infiltrated state service apparatus was fanning the flames and giving Washington little to show for its state-building efforts. U.S. state-builders found themselves at a crossroads. On one hand, President Bush could accept the congressional Iraq Study Group's recommendation simply to speed up the current strategy of handing off security and service responsibilities to an incompetent and corrupt Iraqi government in the hope that the eventual drawdown would focus Iraqi officials' minds. As Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice later recalled, the strategy in place since 2003 had assumed "that we would defeat the army, but the institutions would hold, everything from ministries to police forces …You would be able to bring new leadership but that we were going to keep the body in place." But by 2006, many believed that simply speeding up this failed strategy would be "rushing to failure," as Gen. David H. Petraeus would later put it.
The alternative, as Maj. Gen. H.R. McMaster and several other counterinsurgency experts advocated, was for Washington to increase its military presence, gain the population's trust, and take it upon itself to create the security conditions necessary for the political institution-building processes to go forward.
In choosing the counterinsurgency option, Bush was gambling on a much different conception of state-building than had been followed up to that point. "State-building," Francis Fukuyama argues, "is the creation of new government institutions and the strengthening of existing ones." Yet after more than three years of attempting to create and strengthen institutions, Gen. George Casey, commander of the multinational forces in Iraq, admitted that "we are failing to achieve objectives in the Economic Development, Governance, Communicating, and Security lines of operation within the planned timeframes." The changes to the Multi-National Force-Iraq (MNF-I) mission statement in January 2007 were telling: Instead of "partnership" with the Iraqi Security Forces (which the population distrusted), the new relationship was merely "coordination"; instead of "meeting the needs of the Iraqi people," the MNF-I would first "gain the support of the people"; and instead of "contribut[ing] to an environment where Iraqis can develop representative and effective institutions," the MNF-I would specifically create an environment of "GOI [government of Iraq] security self-reliance."
Crucial to the new strategy was the identification of the population's mistrust of the state as a key driver of the conflict (as indeed was the state's mistrust of the population). As a 2007 State Department report put it, "In the absence of security, communities are turning to 'self-help.'" With the population turning to warlords and corrupt government patrons, U.S. officials scrapped the assumption that "political progress will help defuse the insurgency and dampen levels of violence" and replaced it with the assumption that "while political progress, economic gains, and security are intertwined, political and economic progress are unlikely absent a basic level of security." By promoting its partnership with the Iraqi government, Washington had only accentuated the population's mistrust. As a result, Iraqis were seeking refuge in trusted sectarian and tribal security structures. Thus, U.S. leaders would first seek to regain the trust of the disenfranchised Sunnis and then attempt to pry state institutions from the Shiites' sectarian control.
By the end of 2006, the so-called Sunni Triangle northwest of Baghdad had fallen victim to the plans of the recently deceased al-Qaeda in Iraq leader, Abu Musab Zarqawi, to exploit sectarian wariness as a means for maximizing violence. Punishments for the most egregious crimes were dealt out by tribal leaders or extremist Sunni groups. To the extent that security forces exerted influence, it was in their ability to assist these factions with their illegal revenge killings. "The civil war was a bloodbath," New York Times reporter Dexter Filkins noted of 2006, "but it had the unintended effect of making it easier for the respective groups to protect themselves.", Sunnis seemed to have endorsed the notion of Antonio Giustozzi of the London School of Economics, that non-state warlords "are not necessarily worse predators than states themselves, not only because they may provide a few social services and infrastructure but, most of all, security from external threats." Yet the accommodation was not entirely defensive. Score settling and ideological terrorism actively undermined the government, creating a destructive feedback loop. "Those societies deficient in stable and effective government are also deficient in mutual trust among their citizens," Samuel Huntington observed. "Their political cultures are often said to be marked by suspicion, jealousy, and latent or actual hostility toward everyone who is not a member of the family, the village, or, perhaps, the tribe." By the autumn of 2006, such a political culture had made the Sunni Triangle the most violent part of Iraq.
The new strategy sought to capitalize on the emerging "Anbar Awakening," in which Marine units had begun turning insurgents into allies through a process of entering enemy territory, staying, and proving to the local population that U.S. forces could be trusted to protect them. The influx of surge troops would lend more credibility to the informal relationships unit commanders had already been forging with the emerging, predominantly Sunni "Sons of Iraq," and the new counterinsurgency doctrine would lend the process official approval.
One of the most important steps in institutionalizing the success of the "Anbar Awakening" came when Prime Minister Maliki agreed to set up a panel for vetting Awakening volunteers to serve in the Iraqi security forces. Here, Iraqi army Lt. Gen. Abdul Kareem (center), Diyala Operations Center commander, speaks at a meeting on Forward Operating Base Gabe, Diyala province, December 23, 2008, as Baghdad took over control of the "Sons of Iraq" security groups in four key provinces.
The "Sunni awakening" was not an attempt to negotiate with the enemy. As the State Department put it, "Dialogue with insurgents has not improved security and may not produce strategic gains in the current context." Instead, the awakening would offer a strong, attractive alternative to which enemy fighters might wish to switch. One of the most important steps in institutionalizing its success came when Prime Minister Maliki agreed to set up an official 9-member panel for vetting awakening volunteers to serve in the security forces. By 2009, more than 24,000 Sons of Iraq had been officially registered in the government's biometric database, added to the government payrolls, and placed under Iraqi command. As President Barack Obama would later note, "In an area that was once the heart of the insurgency, a combination of fighting and training, politics and partnership brought the promise of peace."
With the Sunnis increasingly accepting the state's security function, the next step was to influence the political will of the dominant Shiite community. "Governmental institutions derive their legitimacy and authority not from the extent to which they represent the interests of the people or of any other group," Huntington argued, "but to the extent to which they have distinct interests of their own apart from all other groups." Yet throughout Baghdad and much of the country, key service delivery institutions such as the Ministry of Health (MOH) and Ministry of Transportation, as well as the Ministry of Interior (MOI) and Ministry of Defense, had fallen under the de facto control of the Badr and Mahdi Shiite militias; the MOI ran scores of illegal Sunni detention centers, and Sunnis were so fearful of the MOH that they would travel hours for emergency care to avoid being tortured upon arrival at a Shiite-run hospital.
The legacy of Saddam's brutalization was at play, and Shiites were both exacting their revenge for decades of repression as well as seeking any means possible of preventing a relapse into the Sunni authoritarianism of Saddam's days. "You have to realize how atomizing, how demoralizing, how debauching, how traumatizing the thirty-five years of Saddam's fascism were," journalist Christopher Hitchens once argued. "Utter wreckage of any possibility of a political class emerging. All possible rivals destroyed. Inculcation of fear of the nearest armed person. People forced to denounce one another. Forced to betray one another. Forced really to a Hobbesian state." While the idea of pluralistic, non-sectarian state institutions had once existed in Iraq, "four decades of relentless hammering of social institutions," as Iraqi historian Thabit Abdullah noted, had left an indelible impression on the Shiites.
Still, the success of the awakening and the surge in facing down the threat from al-Qaeda in Iraq had given some relief to Shiite anxieties, opening up a window of opportunity for making the state less exclusive and predatory. Prime Minister Maliki, confident in U.S. support and motivated by a combination of public approval and a desire to undermine his rivals among the followers of Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, went on the offensive with operations in Karbala in August 2007 and Basra in March 2008. These successes isolated Sadr politically and inspired budding confidence in the security forces' potential to act even-handedly on its own, garnering momentum for operations in the Sadr City area of Baghdad. Officials at the airport authority, a bastion of Sadrists, began firing militia members. Sadrist militia units began looking to integrate into the Iraqi army. The death squad-affiliated deputy health minister and prison system director were arrested (although eventually released due to witness intimidation). Iraqi politicians began orienting their behaviors toward the 2009 and 2010 elections, whose legitimacy, thanks to the success of the counterinsurgency strategy, was becoming increasingly accepted. By 2008, division and alienation among Iraqis had declined to the point that agreement was reached on previously controversial legislation expanding provincial powers and limiting the extent of de-Baathification. The conditions for politics by peaceful means had commenced, conferring upon elections and governing institutions the legitimacy that Bremer had hoped to create back in 2003.
The Drawdown (2009-11)
The election of President Obama in 2008 did not on its face imply a change of direction for the state-building mission in Iraq. Before Obama had even taken office, President Bush had negotiated a status of forces agreement (SOFA) with Iraq, setting a target date of December 2011 for the complete withdrawal of U.S. troops. Indeed, thanks to the security conditions established by the 2007 counterinsurgency strategy, a modest cascade of political gains had built up to the point that a 2011 departure appeared plausible. The United Nations and International Red Cross had increased their presence in 2008, and Arab leaders had finally begun to engage Baghdad seriously as an equal partner. Projects such as the National Capacity Development program of the U.S. Agency for International Development finally had a credible governing structure with which to work, and momentum was building for the 2009 provincial elections. 
While the Bush administration had prioritized relationships and trust-building, the Obama administration sent Prime Minister Maliki (l) the clear message that it wished to keep Iraq's state-building efforts at arm's length. The Obama administration played no active role in conditioning the political will of Maliki and the rest of Iraq's political players and malcontents. As a result, Maliki's authoritarian tendencies have intensified, and Iranian influence has begun to fill the vacuum left by Washington.
However, the Obama administration had a completely different vision. While its predecessor had prioritized relationships and trust-building, the new administration sent Maliki a clear message that U.S. domestic political calculus would trump further entanglements with Iraq. U.S. concern would be less with securing fragile political gains on foreign soil than fulfilling political promises to wind down U.S. involvement. This was exemplified in the selection of political consultant Tom Donilon, first as a key military advisor and later national security advisor, as well as the selection of Christopher Hill as ambassador. While Hill's lack of experience in the Middle East could be viewed as a liability, it was actually an asset to a strategy that would keep Iraq's state-building efforts at arm's length. Hill was not interested in the nuances of a counterinsurgency strategy that had run its course. "We hate the term 'drivers of instability' and won't use it," he told MNF-I officials. Far from seeking to advance Ambassador Crocker's strategy of influence, Hill quipped that he was ready to "break some crockery."
Thus, while the Obama administration would stay the course on withdrawing by 2012, it would attempt to do so with an approach more in keeping with the ineffective "light footprint" days preceding the surge. As a result, its ability to guide the political will of Iraqi leaders in the event of unforeseen challenges to political progress was severely limited. And indeed, such challenges would emerge most saliently in the 2010 national elections and again in the negotiations of a revised status of forces agreement.
Argues Brookings scholar Kenneth Pollack,
The incentive structure that compelled most (and allowed a few) Iraqi political leaders to act like good democratic stewards in 2008–2010 was still an artificial one, imposed from the outside by the United States. By 2011, that incentive structure had not had time to take root and supplant the incentives of the bad, old system. When Washington removed that external incentive structure prematurely, Iraq's political leaders went back to what they knew best and what they expected to prevail anyway.
By the run-up to the 2009 provincial elections, the conditions secured by the 2007-08 counterinsurgency strategy meant that the elections would finally serve as a means of forcing potential spoilers to play by the rules of the game. Whereas in 2006, sectarian mistrust was such that, as Thabit Abdullah noted, "elections and constitutional referendums ha[d] actually fanned sectarian flames rather than acted as the basis for a new, more unified, country," the 2009 elections would enjoy the participation of the Sunnis, who had previously boycotted them, and lead to an unprecedented crop of secular winners. Even Maliki, though birthed in the conspiratorial fires of the Shiite Dawa opposition party and as fearful of a Baathist coup as ever, was finding it less in his interest to be perceived on the wrong side of a U.S. strategy that was finally bringing political progress. Furthermore, he had learned the benefits of Washington's support since U.S. officials had stood by him in a 2007 vote-of-confidence prompted by his pressure on the Sadrists.
Despite this, the Obama administration disregarded how important a role an active U.S. government could play in conditioning the political will of Maliki and the rest of Iraq's political players and malcontents. In a January 2009 report, Gen. Ray Odierno, commander of MNF-I, and Ambassador Crocker had argued that successful provincial elections would build momentum for the 2010 national elections. They had also predicted that a failure to correct any electoral challenges that might emerge would have a reciprocal negative effect. Thus, as Maliki prepared to restore the Dawa Party's primacy in the 2010 elections by using an accountability and justice commission to declare five hundred former Baathist candidates ineligible to run for office, Washington's reaction would be crucial. But in accordance with Ambassador Hill's hands-off approach, little was done to exert meaningful leverage on Maliki to lift the ban or even to negotiate a concession from him in exchange for accepting it. The CPA's 2003 decision to de-Baathify the Iraqi army was by now widely accepted as a key mistake. Yet the Obama administration saw little harm in allowing an equally significant political de-Baathification to take place so long as the drawdown of U.S. troops continued on schedule. Despite Maliki's ban, the 2010 voter turnout registered an impressive 62 percent with the secular coalition of Ayad Allawi prevailing by one seat. Neither the U.N. nor Iraq's Independent High Election Commission found any instances of rampant cheating, yet Maliki remained defiant, adding more names to the list of banned candidates after the vote, demanding recounts in several key Sunni voting districts, and successfully appealing to the Iraqi supreme court to reinterpret the rules guiding the formation of coalitions in order to give his bloc a chance to form a majority.
The Obama administration had several options for breaking the impasse: The political wrangling by Crocker and Petraeus in 2008 to achieve the SOFA had proven that Iraqi politics had grown dynamic enough to allow for creative, though painstaking, compromises. Instead, Washington concluded that the Iraqi system should run its course. From Crocker's perspective, the United States was "hardwired" into the Iraqi system, and pretending otherwise was fanciful. Yet Hill accepted the Iraqi supreme court's ruling, allaying any concerns that the administration had any red lines that might jeopardize the December 2011 pullout date. According to analyst Kenneth Pollack, this "sent a disastrous message to both the Iraqi people and the political leadership: The United States is more concerned with expediency than with enforcing the system's rules. The referee was gone, and Iraq's leaders now were free to go back to the old rules, which had produced Iraq's tragic twentieth-century history."
As predicted, the result of this electoral dispute was back-tracking in perceived and actual governmental legitimacy. Maliki would proceed to remove the integrity commission, the election commission, and the central bank from parliament's oversight, placing it under the supervision of his own cabinet. In October 2012, Maliki's investigative team exercised its newfound powers by arresting the central bank's governor Sinan Shabibi for allegedly allowing staff to make bulk transfers of foreign currency out of the country—a favorite charge of the whimsical Saddam-era Mukhbarat. Meanwhile, the election commission's staff was purged, and, a year later, its former commissioner would be sentenced for $130 worth of alleged graft. The Kurdish Regional Government, immersed at the time in a battle with Maliki over oil and power, called the sentencing a "gross violation and a dangerous infringement of the political process, and a sign that the democratic process in the country is being undermined,"  but without sustained U.S. pressure, there was little leverage to stop Maliki's authoritarian drift.
The SOFA Debate and Authoritarian Drift (2011-Present)
Despite important gains made from 2007 onward in legitimizing the state, building up its security forces, and increasing its efficiency, even in 2010, the Iraqi state was unable to stand on its own when it came to several key security functions: guarding its airspace, collecting intelligence, and supporting its security forces logistically. With U.S. combat troops removed from Iraqi cities in July 2009 and almost entirely by September 2010, the remaining 50,000 troops held the country's political progress together as an assurance, even if token, against the possibilities of a Baathist coup, a predatory Shiite government, or Arab incursions into Kurdish Regional Government territory.
Vice president Joe Biden believed it inevitable that Maliki would admit his need for additional U.S. troops beyond December 2011, saying privately in 2010, "I'll bet you my vice presidency Maliki will extend the SOFA." There were many obvious mutual benefits to be gained by an extension, including a U.S. ability to project force against Iran and Syria and an Iraqi opportunity to extract concessions regarding the sensitive issue of Saddam-era sanctions and debt obligations. Even President Obama was prepared to extend the troop presence (though short of the 14,000-18,000 recommended by U.S. Forces-Iraq commander Gen. Lloyd Austin) so long as it would be an Iraqi-led negotiation from which he could keep a safe distance.
But the Obama administration missed another opportunity to build trust and incentivize inclusiveness with the Iraqi government. "The critical issue was not the U.S. troop presence," argues British military advisor Emma Sky, "but the U.S. commitment to Iraq—and the building of a relationship that went beyond military support and lip service to supporting democracy and a strategic partnership." If the U.S. priority during the 2011 SOFA negotiations had been to provide the Iraqi government with the political insulation and trust necessary for building on its democratic progress, it would not have acted the way it did, forcing Maliki to put the extension request to a politically toxic vote before parliament—even after the prime minister and opposition leaders had shown good faith by tirelessly hashing out a "memorandum of understanding" for trainers, appointing an acting Sunni minister of defense, and initiating an operation against Iranian special groups. While scapegoats for the failed SOFA accord have ranged from the Iraqi parliament to U.S. negotiator Brett McGurk (whose 2012 nomination for ambassador to Iraq was thwarted by a sex scandal), what was most important was that the White House "seemed to be having trouble taking yes for an answer."
Rather, domestic political preoccupations meant that even with a disappointing breakdown in the troop extension talks, Obama could announce the December 2011 withdrawal as a "moment of success." As for the post-2011 U.S. vision for Iraq, "With our diplomats and civilian advisors in the lead," Obama announced, "we'll help Iraqis strengthen institutions that are just, representative, and accountable." Yet without U.S. moral support and military presence, which "provided a psychological effect that helped stabilize and bound Iraqi political discourse within expected behavior," any diplomacy beyond putting out occasional political fires has proven empty.
In the weeks leading up to Maliki's December 2011 visit to Washington, the prime minister ordered the detention of nearly 1,000 alleged Baathists based on disputed intelligence. Since the December withdrawal—portrayed by Sunnis as an Iranian dictate and by Shiites as a triumph for the Sadrist resistance (which had gone from outlaw to kingmaker)—Maliki's authoritarian tendencies have only accentuated a deteriorating economic and political situation. In its 2013 Iraq report, Human Rights Watch concluded that Washington had "not sufficiently pressed the Maliki government to rein in corruption and serial human rights abuses," citing a record number of Justice Ministry executions and the continued use of secret prisons. Unsolved journalist murders accumulate, and Iraq now ranks first on the "Impunity Index" of the Committee to Protect Journalists while the central government issues thinly veiled warnings to local journalists to "toe the government line."
Through most of the post-2003 state-building period, Iraq became neither overly dependent on the nearly $20 billion of committed foreign aid nor cursed by its own oil resources. That appears to be changing. Post-withdrawal Iraq "is rapidly reconnecting to its past as a rentier state, using its oil rents to extend patronage and to build up its security forces to crush opposition." Absent the negotiation space, which the U.S. military provided during spats between Arabs and Kurds over oil issues, the U.N. Office of the Special Representative of the Secretary-general notes that "recent signs of increased tensions" between the Kurdish Regional Government and Baghdad, mostly over oil and gas revenue-sharing legislation, suggest that Maliki will be looking for ways to increase his influence beyond the borders of Arab Iraq. Such overreach bodes no good for the future of a unified Iraq.
Absent a U.S. military role in midwifing inclusive political compromises and power-sharing agreements, increasing the capacity of the security forces in post-withdrawal Iraq has become an exercise in building up Maliki's authoritarian reach. For all the energy, money, and lives sacrificed by America in training a professional, nonsectarian security force, Maliki has in essence weakened the effectiveness of the 800,000-man security apparatus. He alone serves as the minister of interior, minister of defense, and national security council director. The consolidation of the security apparatus under him comes at a time of regional instability with the uprising in Syria emboldening resurgent al-Qaeda terrorists throughout Iraq.
Meanwhile, whatever progress Iraq's judiciary has made toward a "rationalization of authority" has now all but vanished. Hard-won protections for Iraq's judges, such as the 2009 Judicial Protection Unit for the Higher Judicial Council, have transformed into a means of insulating the judiciary from charges of sectarianism. Recent high profile examples include the release of Hezbollah operative Ali Mussa Daqduq, despite U.S. government evidence citing his role in the kidnapping and murder of U.S. troops, as well as the September 2012 sentencing in absentia of former vice president Tariq Hashemi, based on forced confessions from personal bodyguards tortured at the hands of the Iraqi security forces. Maliki even scoffed at Human Rights Watch's 2011 allegations of torture in Iraq prisons. But the current administration in Washington finds itself with no dog in the fight, simply calling on Iraqi leaders "to resolve their disputes consistent with the rule of law and in a manner that will strengthen Iraq's long-term security, unity, and commitment to democracy."
Al-Qaeda in Iraq has quickly capitalized on Sunni resentment to renew its violent offensive against the government and Shiite rivals, leaving Washington with few options to push Iraq back from the brink of sectarian civil war. At a time when the U.N.'s most recent report highlights Iraq's "alarming" developments and concludes that "[r]ising inter-sectarian tensions are posing a major threat to stability and security in Iraq," Washington is set to draw down levels of civilian personnel in Iraq to 5,500 by the end of 2013. John Kerry used his March 2013 visit to the country—the first by a U.S. secretary of state in four years—to pressure Maliki to consider Sunni demands and rein in Iranian arms shipments to Syria via Iraqi airspace. But the prime minister is unlikely to acquiesce to the requests of the hastily departing United States. Indeed, he dug in after a July 2013 prison break that released hundreds of al-Qaeda terrorists instead launching mass arrests in a security crackdown he called "revenge of the martyrs."
This mix of terror and dictatorship threatens to lead to what Saddam-era dissident Kanan Makiya calls a "hardening of the arteries" of the majority Shiites where "a decline of interest in human rights takes place as a consequence of the harsh measures needed to crush the insurgents." While Washington has continued security assistance since its pullout, a State Department police development program has languished, lacking buy-in "as a result of Iraqi efforts to emerge from U.S. tutelage." While slated delivery of thirty-six F-16s to the Iraqi air force represents a more consequential investment in Iraqi security forces, so long as Baghdad continues on its insecure trajectory, any arms deal risks merely adding fuel to the fire.
The U.S. withdrawal of 2011 presumed to answer the question raised by Gen. Petraeus in 2003: "Tell me how this ends." In December 2011, President Obama announced that "we are ending a war not with a final battle, but with a final march toward home." Yet for Iraqis, the promise of home in its figurative sense remains far away. A 2011 Human Rights Watch report concluded that "the country's transition to a functioning and sustainable democracy built on rule of law is far from accomplished." Maliki's disturbing creep toward authoritarianism bodes ill for the upcoming 2014 national elections, alienating the moderate Sunnis he needs on his side against a resurgent al-Qaeda. With Maliki set to run for a third term, Iraqis simply have not yet passed the decisive test of a peaceful handover of power to an opposition party.
Of course, as Ambassador Crocker put it, what is important in building up a state amid a society as brutalized, divided, and complex as Iraq is not so much achieving a static end-state in which all sectarianism has been eviscerated, but rather, creating a secure, trust-based, inclusive environment in which political progress and peaceful conflict resolution can flourish. While the success that the U.S. counterinsurgency strategy had in promoting the awakening movements may serve as a guide to such state-building conditions, the gradual unraveling of that very progress in the face of Washington's indifference is equally telling. Where political will is tepid, so too are institutions. U.S. military power is a tremendous force for shaping political will, but absent long-standing relationships that make clear the commitment of that power, the energy behind state-building quickly dissipates. "What we have to accept if we don't want to see Iraq devolve into a huge danger to the region through rampant instability is we have to commit ourselves to a long-term engagement," noted Crocker last spring as violence flared up.
Despite warnings by former Prime Minister Allawi that Iraq is not much better off now than it was under Saddam and that, on the current path, "mayhem and civil war will be the inevitable outcome, with dire consequences for the entire region," few suggest Iraq is beyond the point of no return. "Even if we have a change here," said parliamentary candidate Adil Abdel Mahdi, "people will not go backward and say we need a despotic regime or a tyrannical regime. They will ask for more democracy. They will ask for more freedom." Meanwhile, Shiite religious leaders have made efforts to reach out to Sunnis to avoid a rapid escalation of sectarian violence. The highest ranking Shiite official, Ayatollah Ali Sistani, issued a rare fatwa (religious degree) in October 2013, condemning derogatory insults of Sunni religious practices. Sadr, too, has spent political capital on reaching out to Sunnis, raising hopes that good Iraqi leadership could preclude sectarian civil war. Still, so long as the current Iraqi government opts for decree rather than the hard work of inclusive pluralism, good leadership will be in the mistrusting eye of the beholding ethnicity, sect, tribe, or religious faction—hardly a prescription for success.
Patrick Knapp is a U.S. Army Reserve officer pursuing a master's degree at Columbia University's School for International and Public Affairs. He has worked in Afghanistan in a civilian capacity as a field officer for an aid program in 2011, as a volunteer for a human rights organization in Sulaymaniyah, Iraq, in 2012, and for a Kabul-based nongovernmental organization in 2013.
 Michael R. Gordon and Gen. Bernard E. Trainor, The Endgame (New York: Pantheon Books, 2012), p. 8.
 L. Paul Bremer, "Iraq's Path to Sovereignty," The Washington Post, Sept. 8, 2003.
 Ashraf Ghani and Clare Lockhart, Fixing Failed States (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), p. 30.
 Charles Tilly, "War Making and State Making as Organized Crime," in Peter Evans, Dietrich Rueschemeyer, and Theda Skocpol, eds., Bringing the State Back In (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985), p. 169.
 "MNF-I Red Cell, 'Red Team Report: An Integrated Counterinsurgency Strategy for Iraq,' (SECRET), 31 August 2005," cited in Gordon and Trainor, The Endgame, p. 161; Derek J. Harvey, "A Red Team Perspective in the Insurgency in Iraq," An Army at War: Change in the Midst of Conflict, Combat Studies Institute 2005 Military History Symposium, Aug. 2-4, 2005, pp. 191-227.
 Ryan Crocker, interview, France 24 (Paris), July 2, 2009.
 James A. Baker and Lee H. Hamilton, "The Iraq Study Group Report: II. The Way Forward—A New Approach," U.S. Congress, Washington, D.C., Dec. 6, 2006.
 Michael R. Gordon, "The Strategy to Secure Iraq Did Not Foresee a 2nd War," The New York Times, Oct. 19, 2004.
 Gordon and Trainor, The Endgame, p. 356; David H. Petraeus, "Report of Congress on the Situation in Iraq," Sept. 10-11, 2007, p. 6.
 Tom Ricks, "McMaster speaks: What went wrong in Iraq," Foreign Policy, Sept. 18, 2009.
 Francis Fukuyama, State Building (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2004), p. ix.
 "Weekly report from General David Petraeus to Defense Secretary Robert Gates (SECRET), week of 5-11 August 2007," cited in Gordon and Trainor, The Endgame, p. 433.
 Thomas E. Ricks, The Gamble (New York: The Penguin Press, 2009), p. 340, 354.
 "Highlights of the Iraq Strategy Review," U.S. State Department, Washington, D.C., Jan. 10, 2007.
 Dexter Filkins, "General Principles: How Good Was David Petraeus?" The New Yorker, Dec. 17, 2012.
 Antonio Giustozzi, "The Debate on Warlordism: The Importance of Military Legitimacy," London School of Economics, Crisis States Programme, discussion paper, no.13, Oct. 2005, p. 7.
 Samuel Huntington, Political Order in Changing Societies (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2006), p. 26.
 See Mark Wilbanks and Efraim Karsh, "How the 'Sons of Iraq' Stabilized Postwar Iraq," Middle East Quarterly, Fall 2010, pp. 57-70.
 "Highlights of the Iraq Strategy Review," Jan. 10, 2007.
 "Iraqis Take Responsibility for Security in Anbar Province," U.S. State Department, Washington, D.C., Sept. 1, 2008; "Section 1227 Report on Iraq," U.S. State Department, Washington, D.C., July 2009.
 Barack Obama, remarks on the end of the war in Iraq, Office of the Press Secretary, Washington, D.C., Dec. 14, 2011.
 Huntington, Political Order in Changing Societies, p. 27.
 The Guardian, July 2, 2005.
 Los Angeles Times, Feb. 9, 2007.
 Christopher Hitchens, interview, Daily Motion, Hoover Institution, Standford University, Aug. 2007.
 Thabit A.J. Abdullah, Dictatorship, Imperialism and Chaos: Iraq since 1989 (Nova Scotia: Fernwood Publishing, 2006), p. 119.
 "Section 2207 Report to Congress," U.S. State Department, Washington, D.C., Oct. 2008.
 Gordon and Trainor, The Endgame, p. 363.
 "Section 1227 Report on Iraq," July 2009.
 Gordon and Trainor, The Endgame, pp. 585, 626.
 Kenneth Pollack, "Reading Machiavelli in Iraq," The National Interest, Dec. 2012.
 Abdullah, Dictatorship, Imperialism and Chaos, p. 120.
 Gordon and Trainor, The Endgame, p. 626.
 Pollack, "Reading Machiavelli in Iraq."
 The Huffington Post (New York), Oct. 18, 2012; Kenneth Katzman, "Iraq: Politics, Governance, and Human Rights," Congressional Research Service, Washington, D.C., Aug. 22, 2013; Dexter Filkins, "The Other Iraq Legacy," The New Yorker, Mar. 20, 2013.
 The New York Times, Apr. 16, 2012.
 Gordon and Trainor, The Endgame, p. 643.
 Max Boot, "Losing Iraq?" The Weekly Standard, Sept. 19, 2011.
 Emma Sky, "Iraq in Hindsight: Views on the U.S. Withdrawal," Center for a New American Security, Washington, D.C., Dec. 14, 2012.
 Gordon and Trainor, The Endgame, p. 667.
 The Guardian (London), Dec. 14, 2011.
 Obama, remarks on the end of the war in Iraq, Dec. 14, 2011.
 Ramzy Mardini, "Iraq's First Post-withdrawal Crisis," Institute for the Study of War, Washington, D.C., Dec. 19, 2011.
 Katzman, "Iraq: Politics, Governance, and Human Rights." Katzman credits U.S. diplomacy for averting Sunni backlash to Maliki's late 2011 crackdown.
 "World Report 2013: Iraq," Human Rights Watch, Washington, D.C., Jan. 31, 2013.
 "Attacks on the Press: Iraq," Committee to Protect Journalists, New York, Feb. 14, 2013.
 Sky, "Iraq in Hindsight."
 "First Report of the Secretary-general pursuant to resolution 2061 (2012)," U.N. Office of the Special Representative of the Secretary-general, New York, Nov. 16, 2012.
 Katzman, "Iraq: Politics, Governance, and Human Rights."
 "First report of the Secretary-general pursuant to resolution 2061 (2012)," Nov. 16, 2012.
 Huntington, Political Order in Changing Societies, p. 34.
 "Section 1227 Report on Iraq," July 2009.
 Stephen Wicken, "The Hashemi Verdict and the Health of Democracy in Iraq," Institute for the Study of War, Washington, D.C., Sept. 11, 2012.
 "At a Crossroads," Human Rights Watch, Washington, D.C., Feb. 3, 2011.
 "Death Sentence of Tariq al-Hashemi," U.S. State Department, Washington, D.C., Sept. 11, 2012.
 "Third report of the Secretary-general pursuant to paragraph 6 of resolution 2061 (2012)," U.N. Office of the Special Representative of the Secretary-general, New York, July 11, 2013.
 Katzman, "Iraq: Politics, Governance, and Human Rights."
 Kelly Edwards, "Prison break and violence levels demand Maliki security response: 2013 Iraq," update no. 32, Institute for the Study of War, Washington, D.C., Aug. 13, 2013.
 Kanan Makiya, "Writers and Iraq," Pen American Center, Beverly Hills, Apr. 19, 2005.
 Katzman, "Iraq: Politics, Governance, and Human Rights."
 Agence France-Presse, Oct. 18, 2012.
 The Washington Post, Jan. 7, 2007.
 Obama, remarks on the end of the war in Iraq, Dec. 14, 2011.
 "At a Crossroads," Feb. 3, 2011.
 Ryan Crocker, interview, France 24 (Paris), July 2, 2009.
 Public Radio International, May 29, 2013.
 BBC Hardtalk, June 19, 2013; Ayad Allawi, "Iraqi Hope Dies Last," Project Syndicate (New York and Prague), Mar. 21, 2013.
 Gordon and Trainor, The Endgame, p. 682-3.
 Shafaq News (Baghdad), Oct. 10, 2013.
 Al-Monitor (Washington, D.C.), Oct. 11, 2013.