transfer of authority in Iraq's Anbar province from American to Iraqi security forces on 1 September 2008 is an index of confidence that the situation in Iraq is indeed improving. There are indeed signs of progress across much of the country, though some of these have to be qualified by noting the context in which they are emerging. It is also important to keep an eye on the larger strategic picture in Iraq and the region, where the United States is surrounded by both familiar and unexpected concerns.
Paul Rogers is professor of peace studies at Bradford University, northern England. He has been writing a weekly column on global security on openDemocracy since 26 September 2001
The gradual spreading of a degree of peace and normality in many parts of Iraq after the endemic violence of recent years is welcome relief to Iraq's long-suffering people as well as to the Iraqi authorities and the United States-led military forces. Among its measurable aspects is the markedly lower monthly death-toll among Americans in 2008 compared to most months during the first five years of the war.
The fact that this total almost doubled between July and August 2008, however, is a particular example of a general point: that much of what appears to be forward movement in Iraq today is on closer inspection provisional (this point is also made by some of the more experienced journalists in Iraq, such as Patrick Cockburn of the Independent).
The point can be illustrated in three ways. First, such progress as does exist has come at a continuing and terrible cost - which includes the many tens of thousands of Iraqis killed since March 2003, the approximately 4.7 million refugees and internally-displaced people, and the fact that many urban areas have been rigidly divided by barriers into confessional zones.
Second, the improvements of 2008 have been uneven. There was, for example, an upsurge of violence in March; and a sharp increase in major suicide-bomb attacks in late July, aimed largely at Shi'a communities and the Iraqi police (see "The thirty-year war, revisited", 31 July 2008).
Third, the reality of conditions in Iraq is also conveyed by details that are less prominently highlighted than (for example) the Anbar transfer. A case in point is the news that as many as 19,700 Iraqis are still being held in US military detention-camps. There is a large turnover of detainees - while 11,000 have been released in 2008, many thousands more have been detained, with a net decrease of around 4,000. The great majority of the prisoners are detained without trial, and - notwithstanding a mandatory review of status every three months - the average detention-period is 330 days (see "11,000 Freed; US Still Holds 19,700 Iraqis", Arizona Daily Star/Associated Press, 31 August 2008).
In addition to his weekly openDemocracy column, Paul Rogers writes an international security monthly briefing for the Oxford Research Group; for details, click here
Paul Rogers's most recent book is Why We're Losing the War on Terror (Polity, 2007) - an analysis of the strategic misjudgments of the post-9/11 era and why a new security paradigm is needed
The Iraqi dance
This uneven and still - for many Iraqis - pressing and dangerous security picture is reflected in the current political negotiations between the Baghdad government and the United States over the future US military presence in the country. In principle, and according to the formal declarations of the George W Bush administration and American military commanders, progress in Iraq creates the conditions for a gradual withdrawal of US troops. In practice, this stated intention collides with the United States's firm determination - rooted in the strategic value of Iraq to Washington, in terms both of its own oil reserves and its regional location - to remain in Iraq and to refuse to cede ultimate control of the country's security to the Iraqis (see Patrick Cockburn, "Revealed: Secret plan to keep Iraq under US control", 5 June 2008).
The result is a subtle and interesting dance where each side is testing the other's strength and conviction. The current US commander in Iraq, General David Petraeus, is likely to recommend a withdrawal of just one or two of the fifteen combat-brigades currently in Iraq (that is, around 4,000-8,000 of the 60,000 troops which form the core of the 146,000 US personnel in the country). In fact, it is more likely that one combat-brigade (plus some support elements) will return to the homeland - not least in light of the sudden redeployment of 2,000 Georgian troops sent near to the combat-zone in South Ossetia as Georgia's conflict with Russia exploded.
This fairly meagre offering is part of an overall commitment to withdraw all US forces by 2011. The problem for Washington is that the Iraqi government of Nouri al-Maliki, emboldened to a degree by the trend of recent events in Iraq, is raising sharp questions about both the integrity and the timetable of this commitment.
The stance of the al-Maliki government reflects both awareness that the George W Bush administration is approaching its end and a wider sense that to ensure its own survival it needs to consolidate its close links with Iran and to establish an independent space of political action.
The time to go
The result of this willingness of the Iraqi authorities to play much tougher than expected is to present unforeseen difficulties for the United States in Iraq, of which negotiations on the nature of its continuing military presence is only the most visible. The agenda of the talks includes the vexed question of the immunity of US personnel from Iraqi laws.
The political imperative on Washington's side is that an overall long-term agreement could be claimed by the Bush administration (and the Republican campaign of John McCain) as evidence of success in Iraq, and would effectively tie the hands of the successor administration (a particular concern if this were to be headed by Barack Obama).
The agreement was supposed to be finalised in July 2008, but repeated problems have delayed the process. The timetable of the putative American withdrawal is a key pressure-point. It is reported that after replacing his negotiating team with three close aides, Nouri al-Maliki is demanding that US forces leave Iraqi cities as early as 2009, the prelude to a wholesale pull-out by 2011 (see Ned Parker, "Agreement on U.S. withdrawal from Iraq...", Los Angeles Times, 31 August 2008). Another source even suggests that al-Maliki is putting 2010 on the table for the completion of the process (see Sami Moubayed, "Maliki picks a date with destiny", Asia Times, 28 August 2008).
For the United States, any such timescale is utterly unacceptable. The world's largest embassy in Baghdad, and several massive military bases in strategic locations around Iraq, are evidence of its plans to stay for the long term. True, Washington has suggested a timetable that culminates in 2015, but it is not at all clear that this seven-year programme would involve anything other than its combat-troops. If it does not, this would still leave the American military firmly implanted in Iraq - with air-bases containing helicopter-gunships and strike-aircraft, large quantities of forward-based equipment and many tens of thousands of personnel. As for combat-troops, these would be available across the border in Kuwait.
The Afghan operation
The delicate stage of the Iraq negotiations amid a cautiously improving security situation is in contrast with the intense and sustained violence in Afghanistan. The two conflicts are closely connected, in that an overstretched United States military faces major challenges in both - and an easing of pressure in Iraq could mean transfer of some contingents to Afghanistan, which is steadily superseding Iraq as the main combat-zone involving western forces (see "Afghanistan: on the cliff-edge", 28 August 2008).
The scale of the Afghan problem is highlighted by the remarkable, multinational operation - long in planning, and finally accomplished on 3 September - to transport a huge turbine from an air-base at Kandahar to the Kajaki dam in neighbouring Helmand province. The machinery and equipment will be installed in the dam in a year-long project to ensure electricity supplies for over a million Afghans. This high-profile example of determined reconstruction serves a double purpose - confronting the Taliban in one of its heartlands, and delivering benefits to the Afghan population in a way that might undercut support for the movement.
The huge logistical achievement by the International Security Assistance Force (Isaf) to carry the turbine is impressive. The machinery was split into five loads transported by a 100-vehicle convoy which took five days to traverse the route. along the way the convoys were protected by 4,000 US, British, Canadian, Australian and Afghan troops backed up in turn by special forces, mine-clearance teams, helicopter-gunships and strike-aircraft. The size of the security operation is in its own way a striking indication of the degree of insecurity in Afghanistan, nearly seven years after the supposed defeat of the Taliban.
The next axis
A somewhat neglected feature of the Kandahar-Kajaki turbine-transfer is the fact that the giant turbine was made in China and the year's work needed before it can be activated will be done in the main by Chinese workers. The fact that this is taken largely for granted may itself be a reflection of China's growing economic power in neighbouring countries. But this evidence of Chinese industrial prowess also reconnects Afghanistan and Iraq in an equally significant way.
In 1997, China signed an agreement with the Saddam Hussein regime to develop the al-Ahdab oilfield in southeast Iraq. This fell victim to the termination of the regime in 2003, only to be renegotiated and presented for approval to Nouri al-Maliki's cabinet (see Gina Chon, "China Reaches $3 Billion Deal to Develop Oil Field in Iraq", Wall Street Journal, 29 August 2008). The new agreement - which was swiftly confirmed - is on a smaller scale than the original plan, but it is still worth $3 billion over twenty years after production from the field begins (see "Iraqi Cabinet Approves China Oil Deal", Associated Press, 2 September 2008).
The timing is interesting, for similar agreements planned with western companies in Iraq have run into difficulties. Three transnational oil companies - Shell, BP and Exxon Mobil - were all expected to complete deals by the end of June 2008, but none has yet been finalised. Instead, it is China that has made the running, and concluded what the Wall Street Journal report calls "the most significant foreign-investment commitment in Iraq's vast but creaking oil industry in years".
China's action owes much to its domestic energy needs and overwhelming oil-import dependency, factors that impel to a competitive and focused global economic strategy with strong geopolitical implications. The Iraqi deal is part of a pattern that includes impressive oil-and-gas development agreements with Iran, as well as overtures to Saudi Arabia.
All this, moreover, is being achieved without China having to contemplate sending military forces to the region or facing widespread popular hostility and armed resistance. It is a further example of how the international balance of political and economic power is shifting (see "Russia and Iran: crisis of the west, rise of the rest", 21 August 2008).
China's oil-deals, in a region that the United States had come to consider as firmly under its strategic control, represent something that from Washington's perspective was simply not meant to happen. But it is happening. After years of endemic insecurity and war against insurgents in Afghanistan and Iraq, the shape of a loose axis between China, Iran and Iraq can be discerned. Perhaps the next United States president will find - or be offered - a quick, slick slogan to describe this emerging triple-headed threat.