Military analysts predict prolonged U.S. presence in Iraq

American military’s challenge will be the transition from warfighting to peacekeeping and building government in Iraq.

As Army Gen. David Petraeus prepares to deliver his assessment of post-surge progress on the Iraq war to Congress next week, analysts and military officials are saying that while violence in the country is down, the weakness of Iraq's central government and security forces means U.S. troops won't return home any time soon.

After years of denying there is a civil war in Iraq, Petraeus, the former coalition ground commander, told reporters in March that it is now largely a communal civil war for power and resources, both between the minority Sunni and majority Shia populations and among competing Shia parties.

Lt. Gen. Raymond Odierno, who served for 15 months as second in command to Petraeus, said political reconciliation among competing factions will determine Iraq's long-term prospects for stability. Odierno said the focus of U.S. efforts must shift from providing security to building Iraq's national and local governments.

Some see a reconciliation among the sects and the various armed groups in Iraq as unlikely because so much is at stake. "These are struggles over money and power, which are existential for all of the people involved. … Their lives, their money, everything about them is at hazard," said Anthony Cordesman, an analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, at a March 26 event.

Stephen Biddle, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, said that ending Iraq's communal civil war will require negotiating a power-sharing deal that leads to a cease-fire between competing groups, and then having enough troops to remain in Iraq as a peacekeeping force for years to come. "The challenge for the U.S. military is how to transition to this new phase of the conflict from warfighting to peacekeeping," he said.

There is little chance of U.S. troops coming home in the near future, said Cordesman. "When you see the timelines on the [U.S. military's] PowerPoint [charts] when you're in Iraq, they're not 2009; they're 2012, 2014, 2020." He did not expect troop numbers to remain at current levels, but a significant number will remain for several years in "strategic overwatch," working as advisers and providing a backstop to Iraqi troops.

Cordesman said that U.S. efforts to build a central government in Iraq have proved a failure so far. "We've blown through $44 billion in U.S. aid dollars and $33 billion worth of Iraqi money." Yet, "we have no effectiveness measures and no plan to transfer what has been successful to the Iraqi government, which effectively can't spend its own national budget and which has no ability to provide government services, effective police, or criminal justice."

He said there is little chance of improvement in the near term and that the U.S. military has turned its efforts to improving local level governance, "to make up for the fact that we know we can't make the central government effective within the next few years."

But by focusing on strengthening local power instead of a strong central government, the U.S. could be courting more serious problems. Cordesman said the Iraqi police, a force larger than the Iraqi army, is becoming local and regionally oriented, tied to various governors and local authorities. Those police forces operate with little to no national oversight and without courts or a criminal justice system. "Every other place in the world [where] this has been tried -- without a criminal justice system -- the police become part of the problem," he said. "[They are] corrupt, tied to local political factions, and don't bring the kind of security you want."