Iraq is one of a very small number of countries that could bring oil online fast enough to help the world meet this growing demand at a reasonable price. In fact, major energy institutions and international oil companies are already assuming that Iraq will significantly increase its oil production in the coming decade. The International Energy Agency expects Iraq to nearly double its production in the next decade, from roughly 2.5 million barrels per day to 4.8 million barrels per day; BP’s 2030 global assessments are based on similar assumptions.
Such assessments are not pie in the sky. Yes, the claims made in 2003 that Iraq would pay for its own reconstruction with oil turned out to be woefully inaccurate; the country struggled to maintain its production in the face of decrepit infrastructure and a determined insurgency for nearly six years after the invasion. But in the past two years, Iraq has made impressive, if incomplete, progress in developing its vast oil resources. It has signed 11contracts with international oil companies geared toward increasing production more than four-fold to over 12 million barrels a day — more than Saudi Arabia produces today. Few analysts expect Iraq to reach these levels, because of infrastructure bottlenecks and political obstacles. But most still expect a significant increase in production, and they acknowledge that without it, the global economy could be in trouble.
If lessons from Iraq’s difficult experience help stabilize the region, if Iraq remains one of a rapidly dwindling number of Arab countries willing to cooperate with the United States publicly and privately, and if the development of Iraq’s oil resources help the world avoid another energy crisis, some may recalculate the strategic ledger on the U.S. intervention in Iraq.
These potential strategic contributions make a compelling case for maintaining support for Iraq at a time when most Americans are more than ready to let the Iraqis sink or swim on their own. Iraq no longer needs the enormous volumes of U.S. financial, political and military assistance of the previous eight years. But, as a fragile state whose institutions are still vulnerable, Iraq could benefit greatly from a relatively small, continued investment of resources and time.
While the military component of this investment need not be large, it is critical to shoring up Iraq’s nascent armed forces against extremist threats. And in demonstrating America’s continued interest in Iraq’s trajectory, this assistance would buttress Iraq’s political and security institutions.
The Obama administration and Iraqi leaders are grappling with the question of whether all U.S. forces will leave Iraq by the end of 2011, as stipulated in the current bilateral security agreement. The alternative is a different legal arrangement for a small number of U.S. troops — perhaps 10,000 — to stay and help Iraq’s security forces train and deal with challenges that they still cannot adequately address on their own.
Recent news reports suggest that the Obama administration has already decided to limit the number of American troops it would keep in Iraq to as few as 3,000. This is disheartening on several levels. First, troop numbers should come out of negotiations with the Iraqis over the necessary missions — not as a fiat from Washington based on domestic politics. Second, it is not clear what such a small force could accomplish while still protecting itself. And finally, it calls into question whether the Obama administration really understands the opportunities and imperatives it is presented with in Iraq.
Meghan O’Sullivan served as President George W. Bush’s deputy national security adviser for Iraq and Afghanistan from 2005 to 2007. She is now the Jeane Kirkpatrick professor of the practice of international affairs at Harvard University and an adjunct senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.
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