June 15, 2005

Think... Harder! on Iraq

Oh, thanks. Tom Friedman lets us know that our whole problem in Iraq is that we're just not thinking seriously enough about it. With a little more brainpower, maybe a bit of the ol' pacing back and forth, we could crack this nut and get back to lauding the triumph of human technology. Or whatever it is we'd prefer to spend our time doing. This is a bit silly, of course, because people actually have been thinking seriously about Iraq for a long time. The usual suggestions you hear bandied about—we need to include the Sunnis in the political process! No, wait, we need to train the Iraqi forces!—aren't exactly novel. It's not as if no one on the ground has thought of this stuff. And it's not like there's some novel idea or exit strategy out there that just isn't being discussed because we're all too lazy or because Rumsfeld's too stupid. Like Juan Cole likes to say, "Sometimes you are just screwed."

Now as far as bright ideas go, Praktike suggests that the United States could always make nice with Iraq's neighbors—Iran, Turkey, Syria—and get them to pitch in. For sheer ingenuity, I like it. This is exactly the sort of thing I thought John Kerry might be able to do for Iraq when I was writing about it last fall. Trouble is, it's hard to see exactly how far this approach will go towards stabilizing Iraq internally. Probably not very. Meanwhile, Daniel Byman of Georgetown/Brookings suggests that the "least bad option" for Iraq is a drawdown to about 15,000-20,000 troops along with rejiggering our actual objectives (It's long but worth reading):
As part of a proper drawdown, the United States would steadily reduce the size of its presence... [which] should consist of three elements: a division-sized army or Marine Corps unit bolstered by additional specialties such as civil affairs units (15,000–20,000 troops); an advisory presence (i.e. several battalions of special operations forces and marines); and, covertly, a large intelligence presence. With such a presence, the United States would be creating a force that could influence Iraq but not control it.

The division would help back up Iraqi forces and deter Iraq’s neighbours from meddling – but it would rarely see combat on its own. These forces would act as a force multiplier... More important, the force would symbolise the US commitment to Iraq’s external security... The division would also inhibit a coup...

The primary mission of the special operations forces and Marine battalions would be training. ... The United States might at times also use massive firepower on suspected [insurgent] bases...

The United States also should work to identify local warlords who are most able and willing to defeat the jihadists. These leaders, in turn, would receive additional US funding, training and, if necessary, intelligence and arms. We should have no illusion about many of these allies. Although ideally they would be both militarily capable and liberal democrats, in reality many of them will be traditional notables or thugs who have little patience for democracy...

Taking on the bulk of security responsibilities will move the [Iraqi] government much farther toward legitimacy than it has gone so far. Similarly, the massive drawdown in the US presence sends the clear message that Washington does not seek to occupy Iraq indefinitely.... Any government should be encouraged to demonstrate its independence from the United States except on the most important areas. Ideally a drawdown would bolster new leaders, creating the impression that it was their wishes (not US strategic concerns) that led to a decline in the US presence… Iraqi security forces would have more of an incentive to take on the burdens of security, as US forces would not do it for them -- a shift that in theory (though not always in practice) would change their level of motivation.

The United States would also be able to prevent al-Anbar province and other Sunni areas from becoming foreign jihadist centres, as happened in Afghanistan. Such a prospect is perhaps the greatest disadvantage of a full withdrawal from Iraq.

Distinguishing between the foreign jihadists and Iraqi insurgents is vital here. The groups fighting the US presence and the interim government in Iraq today are a motley mix of ex-regime elements, foreign fighters, Iraqi Islamists (both Sunni and Shi’a) and nationalistic Iraqis. Iraqis fighting the United States and the Iraqi government who desire to preserve Sunni prerogatives, expand Shi’a power, or who are angry over the US troop presence in their country are of great concern in Iraq but – in contrast to the jihadists – are not likely to attack US forces around the world or strike in the US homeland. Thus, the United States should emphasise the jihadist danger over the local one.

The United States should make it clear to all local fighters that the United States will ally with their rivals if they work with foreign jihadists. Such an alliance would consist of training and supplies from US forces, money via intelligence officers and, if necessary, direct assistance from elements of the division. Given that most jihadists in Iraq are at best allies of convenience for local fighters, such a deal should not be hard to accomplish. Moreover, the foreign jihadists are located primarily in urban areas, where they are highly vulnerable if the local population turns against them in conjunction with local fighters.

Such a shift would entail considerable costs for Iraq, of course. The crime and security situation would get worse, as the limited policing mission performed by some US soldiers would end. Sectarian strife would probably increase, as communities looked inward for security. ... [T]he potential for Iraq to slide from civil strife to civil war is real. The implications for democracy would be considerable, as security in Iraq would depend far more on the goodwill of local leaders and warlords, few of whom are true democrats. Iraq’s ‘democracy’ would look more like Afghanistan’s.... Some of these costs, however, are already being paid. Crime and strife are rampant now. Several of the most popular political groups ... are groups that established themselves through their guerrilla role, not because they are strong peaceful political movements. A US drawdown, nevertheless, would accelerate these already unfortunate trends....

Cynically, the United States could declare the security situation ‘stabilised’ or the Iraqi forces ‘sufficiently trained’ and use the election as cover to draw down. However, drawing down without recognising the need to narrow objectives would be exceptionally dangerous. If the United States simply declares victory and reduces its presence, the remaining troops will have too many missions to carry out effectively with little sense of prioritisation. Moreover, the United States will not be prepared for some of the inevitably nasty results of a drawdown if it rosily pretends that Iraq has turned the corner.
Basically his idea comes down to the Afghanization of Iraq. Now I can't say whether this is a good idea or bad idea—really, that's up to the folks who are in a position to assess the military situation on the ground—and it would strike me as faintly ridiculous to "debate" this idea around the blogosphere. It's even entirely possible that "stay the course" could end up working. Still, in the event that "stay the course" isn't working, my hunch is that Byman's paper gets at what a "bright idea" for Iraq will look like: ugly and unpalatable, and not something that makes for a good talking point or soundbite on a Sunday morning talk show. I'm not sure that's what Friedman's looking for, but there you go.
-- Brad Plumer 2:49 PM || ||