“Exit Strategies” for Iraq
Aug 24, 2007 | AIJAC staff
Update from AIJAC
August 24, 2007
Number 08/07 #08
The heart of this Update is a long analysis by Max Boot, a security expert at the venerable US Council on Foreign Relations, looking at the various options being canvassed in debates about Iraq at the moment. He examines proposals to draw down troops to concentrate on training, proposals to involve regional actors in stabilising Iraq, proposals for the partition of Iraq, proposals for installing a new Iraqi strongman, proposals to move troops to Iraq’s periphery and attempt to “contain” the civil war within Iraq, and proposals to simply get US troops out of the region as quickly as possible. After detailed analysis, he concludes that, for all its uncertainties and weaknesses, the current “troop surge” strategy appears to be the “least bad option” available. For this full analysis, CLICK HERE.
Next up, former American army intelligence officer turned author and columnist Ralph Peters tries to explain last week’s horrific terrorist massacre of members of the Yazidi minority in Iraq’s Kurdish north in the context of what is happening elsewhere in Iraq. He argues that the attack was a message to the US Congress by al-Qaeda, designed to get the American public and lawmakers to overlook the real inroads that are being made in Iraq as part of the surge, as well as the decreasing ability of al-Qaeda to strike where US troops are operating. For Peters’ argument, CLICK HERE.
Finally, below is another good eyewitness “on the ground with the surge” story. This one focuses on what American troops are doing besides fighting, especially in terms of offering medical services and convincing local and tribal leaders to cooperate with Iraqi police. The full account, by Jeff Emanuel, a former soldier turned embedded journalist, is HERE.
Commentary, September 2007
The current build-up of American forces in Iraq—universally known as the “surge”—was unveiled by President Bush on January 10. The earliest units shipped out in the middle of February, and the full complement of roughly 160,000 troops arrived only in June. Yet, by then, a vociferous chorus of voices back home—consisting mainly of Democrats but also of a growing number of middle-of-the-road Republicans—was already pronouncing the entire operation a failure and demanding a “change of course,” a “new strategy,” a “Plan B.”
Such a new strategy would of course involve not more troops on the ground but fewer, in response to the overwhelming impetus of public opinion to start bringing soldiers home. Nevertheless, while increasingly eager for an end to American involvement in the Iraq war, most legislators have continued to endorse what Senator Richard Lugar, in a much-heralded June speech, declared to be “four primary objectives” in Iraq. These are: “preventing Iraq or any piece of its territory from being used as a safe haven or training ground for terrorists or as a repository or assembly point for weapons of mass destruction”; “preventing the disorder and sectarian violence in Iraq from upsetting wider regional stability”; “preventing Iranian domination of the region”; and “limiting the loss of U.S. credibility.”
That is a very tall order. And so, all summer long, and even as reports surfaced attesting to initial successes of the surge, the search has been on for a plan that could accomplish these goals with a smaller commitment of resources. Does such a plan exist? It is worth surveying the major proposals to see if any of them offers a credible way forward.
The most dramatic option is simply to leave Iraq—i.e., to bring all the troops home as soon as possible. This is the course advocated by, for example, the New York Times and Democratic presidential candidate Bill Richardson. But even the Times admits that the consequences would likely be unpleasant:
Iraq, and the region around it, could be even bloodier and more chaotic after Americans leave. There could be reprisals against those who worked with American forces, further ethnic cleansing, even genocide. Potentially destabilizing refugee flows could hit Jordan and Syria. Iran and Turkey could be tempted to make power grabs. Perhaps most important, the [American] invasion has created a new stronghold from which terrorist activity could proliferate.
In any case, there is no simple or safe way rapidly to remove 160,000 troops, 64,000 foreign contractors, 45,000 vehicles, and millions of tons of equipment from a war zone. Estimates from within the American military suggest that an orderly departure would take, at a minimum, 12 to 20 months to accomplish. (In Vietnam, our withdrawal was conducted over four years.) To leave faster than that would require a precipitous abandonment of allies and equipment. U.S. forces would have to fight their way out of the country along Route Tampa, the main supply line to the south, with insurgents determined at every inch of the way to inflict a final humiliation on the defeated superpower. The pell-mell scramble would likely produce traumatic images akin to those of the last helicopter lifting off from a Saigon rooftop in 1975.
In light of this grisly prospect, most advocates of withdrawal suggest a timeline that, they hope, would make our retreat somewhat more orderly. The leading legislation along these lines, co-sponsored by Carl Levin and Jack Reed in the Senate and Ike Skelton in the House, would begin troop withdrawals within 120 days of passage and complete the process by next April. This legislation passed the House in July but was blocked in the Senate by Republicans seeking to give the administration, and General David Petraeus, time to meet the September 15 deadline for an assessment of the surge’s progress.
Under the terms of the Levin-Reed bill, the President would still have the option, even after April 2008, to retain a “limited presence” of troops for various missions yet to be specified. In this, the legislation’s sponsors were following the work of the Iraq Study Group (ISG), whose December 2006 report has become a touchstone for many critics of the war. The ISG, too, called for a general pullout, to culminate if possible by next spring. But even after the withdrawal of “all combat brigades not necessary for force protection,” other U.S. forces, according to the ISG, could be deployed “in units embedded with Iraqi forces, in rapid-reaction and special-operations teams, and in training, equipping, advising, force protection, and search-and-rescue.”
The ISG made no attempt to estimate how many soldiers would be required to carry out all of the missions in this long wish-list. Neither have most of the politicians who have embraced the ISG’s recommendations. These include Senators Ken Salazar and Lamar Alexander, who have sponsored legislation to implement the findings of the ISG report; two leading Democratic presidential candidates, Senators Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama; and numerous others, among them centrist Republicans like Senators Olympia Snowe, Pete Domenici, and George Voinovich. The Democrats, in particular, even while assuring their supporters that they will “end the war,” have left themselves wiggle room to keep some troops behind.
Some politicians and analysts have proposed another use for American forces beyond the advisory and commando functions envisioned by the ISG. This is to safeguard Iraq’s borders in the likely event that a civil war erupts following a U.S. withdrawal. As part of such a containment policy, Daniel Byman and Kenneth Pollack of the Brookings Institution have suggested stationing 50,000 to 70,000 troops on Iraq’s borders. A version of their idea has been endorsed by retired generals Anthony Zinni of the Marine Corps and Charles Wald of the Air Force—and reportedly even by former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld in a leaked memorandum that he wrote before leaving office.
Aside from leaving behind an unspecified number of troops, most advocates of a U.S. drawdown want to find some diplomatic or political means of lessening the shock of transition. Here again many follow the ISG, which urged the United States to undertake a “new diplomatic offensive” in partnership with a “support group” made up of other states and the United Nations. Senator Hagel, for one, would appoint a UN special envoy to mediate among contending Iraqi factions—advice that the administration is acting upon. Others place the emphasis on reaching an accommodation with neighboring states, especially Syria and Iran. Wesley Clark, the retired general and former Democratic presidential candidate, suggests this could be done by our renouncing the idea of “regime change” in the Middle East.
In the realm of political solutions, a commonly voiced opinion is that Iraq should no longer be conceived of as a single country but partitioned into three entities reflecting Iraqi ethnic divisions: a Kurdish north, a Shiite south, and a Sunni middle. A plan along these lines has been developed by Senator Joseph Biden and Leslie Gelb, president emeritus of the Council on Foreign Relations, and has been backed with various qualifications by Senators Sam Brownback, Barbara Boxer, and Kay Bailey Hutchison, as well as by commentators like Michael O’Hanlon, Peter Galbraith, and David Brooks.
Further political recommendations have issued from sources associated primarily but not exclusively with the “realist” school of foreign policy. The Middle East scholar Daniel Pipes, Time columnist Joe Klein, former Israeli intelligence officer Yossi Alpher, and a few others have proposed ending our support for the current democratically elected government in Baghdad and backing a strongman or junta instead. The strategic analyst Edward Luttwak has suggested that, rather than continuing to police Iraq, we should stand back and allow it to have its civil war, as a necessary and unavoidable prelude to future peace. In order to exercise some influence on the outcome of that struggle, Nikolas Gvosdev, the editor of the National Interest, and Ray Takeyh of the Council on Foreign Relations have advocated that we side openly with the Shiites, “the party that is likely to win the civil war.”
For the most part, these “ways forward” are not mutually exclusive. All are predicated on a substantial reduction in American troop levels. In evaluating which, if any, is likely to work, we may begin in reverse order by looking at the proposed diplomatic solutions, since they are among the most popular.
It is easy to see why. Who could be against diplomacy and dialogue, as compared with roadside explosions and body bags? Unfortunately, however, even the world’s greatest negotiator would be hard-pressed to resolve the internal conflicts that beset Iraq today. Simply finding interlocutors who can reliably deliver on their promises has been, so far, beyond the capabilities of our most experienced diplomats.
Among Iraq’s major groups, only the Kurds are relatively united, with two major political parties that have been able to work closely together. The Shiites, by contrast, have three major parties that are often at odds (and each of which has its own mutually suspicious factions), while among the Sunnis’ three “moderate” parties and numerous radical groupings, none possesses true credibility as a communal representative. Moreover, even if some kind of deal to end the fighting could be reached with the various leaders in Baghdad, many armed groups operating around the country would almost certainly refuse to abide by its terms.
As if Iraq’s internal divisions were not bad enough, the country’s neighbors, in particular Iran and Syria, have contributed greatly to the current unrest. This is the challenge that the ISG’s “diplomatic offensive” proposes to meet. But how? Iran, according to the ISG report, “should stem the flow of arms and training to Iraq, respect Iraq’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, and use its influence over Iraqi Shiite groups to encourage national reconciliation.” Syria, for its part, “should control its border with Iraq to stem the flow of funding, insurgents, and terrorists in and out of Iraq.”
Well, all that would surely be nice. But how exactly are we to convince Syria and Iran that they should do what the Iraq Study Group thinks they should do? The “United States,” says the ISG somewhat redundantly, “should engage directly with Iran and Syria.” There is, however, little reason to think that such talks would yield progress in the desired direction.
In the Iranian case, one indicator of interest—or, more accurately, lack of interest—in negotiations is that on May 28, even as talks were in fact being held in Baghdad between the American and Iranian ambassadors, the Tehran regime was detaining four Iranian-Americans on fabricated charges. Another is that the Iranians have been stepping up the flow of funds, munitions, and trainers to support terrorism in both Afghanistan and Iraq. Both Syria and Iran are also deeply complicit in backing Hamas, Hizballah, and other radical groups working to undermine two other democracies in the Middle East: namely, Israel and Lebanon.
The ISG report suggests that Syria and Iran have an interest in an “Iraq that does not disintegrate and destabilize its neighbors and the region.” That may be so—but not if it means that Iraq emerges as a democratic ally of the United States and an active partner in the war against terrorism. For a terrorism-sponsoring Iranian regime, that would be the worst outcome imaginable. Much better, from the strategic perspective of both Syria and Iran, to continue fomenting chaos in Iraq so as to prevent the emergence of a unified state capable of threatening them.
Syria and especially Iran have been waging a proxy war against the United States in Iraq that could well end with Iran as the dominant player in most of the country. By means of the Jaish al Mahdi and other front groups, Tehran is doing in Iraq what it has already done with Hizballah in Lebanon: expanding its sphere of influence. Why should Ayatollah Khameini and his inner circle voluntarily put a stop to a policy that appears to be achieving their objectives at relatively low cost?
Tehran might veer from its belligerent course if it feared serious military and economic retaliation, ranging from an embargo on refined-petroleum imports to air strikes against the ayatollahs’ nuclear installations. But with a few brave and prophetic exceptions like Senator Joseph Lieberman, who has continued to call attention to Iranian aggression, there is scant political support in the United States for such a tough policy, however justified it may be.
Nor, for that matter, is there significant support for the opposite policy—that is, in paying the substantial bribes that might induce Iran and Syria to change their behavior. That would probably involve, at a minimum, giving the Syrians a free hand to dominate Lebanon and the Iranians a free hand to develop nuclear weapons. The ISG report shied away from recommending such unpalatable concessions. Instead, it proposed a number of incentives that were either insufficient (increased trade and diplomatic relations with the U.S., which Tehran has shown no interest in pursuing) or unobtainable (the unilateral return of the Golan Heights to Syria, which the Israeli government has shown no interest in granting).
The kind of negotiated solution with Iraq’s neighbors envisioned by the ISG and by political figures like Senators Lugar and Clinton would depend on a combination of very enticing carrots and very big sticks. Neither is in the offing.
What about partitioning Iraq, either into three separate states or into some sort of confederation of regional authorities? Does that offer a better solution?
A degree of federalism in Iraq is obviously a good idea, and one that has been embraced by almost everyone involved in the debate over the war. But the status quo already gives virtually complete autonomy to the Kurdish region and a lesser but still significant amount of autonomy to other provinces. Going significantly beyond this would create major problems, some of which were aptly summarized by the ISG:
Because Iraq’s population is not neatly separated, regional boundaries cannot be easily drawn. All eighteen Iraqi provinces have mixed populations, as do Baghdad and most other major cities in Iraq. A rapid devolution could result in mass population movements, collapse of the Iraqi security forces, strengthening of militias, ethnic cleansing, destabilization of neighboring states, or attempts by neighboring states to dominate Iraqi regions.
To these well-founded warnings, two points should be added. First, most Iraqis do not support partition: in an April poll, only 36 percent said they believed the country would be better off if divided into three or more separate entities. Not unexpectedly, the strongest support for the idea comes from the Kurdish region, while among Iraq’s Arab population there is a countervailing desire to keep the country whole. Even proposals for greater regional autonomy meet a mixed response, with some Shiites in favor but many joining the Sunnis in opposition. It would be hard to impose on Iraqis a solution they do not themselves favor.
Furthermore, even if we could somehow partition Iraq—and no one has put forth a credible plan for splitting up multi-sectarian metropolises like Baghdad and Mosul—it is not at all clear that the resulting mini-states would be any more peaceful or stable than today’s (nominally) unitary polity. At present, there is considerable turmoil in southern and western Iraq even though the former region is almost exclusively Shiite and the latter almost exclusively Sunni. We could expect even tougher struggles for power within individually constituted “Iraqistans,” not to speak of war among the three mini-states themselves. To cite just one potential source of discord: absent some kind of ironclad outside guarantee, no Sunni state, lacking its own natural resources, could possibly trust a Shiite-dominated government to share its oil wealth equitably.
There is one set of conditions under which a partition might indeed make sense and even be stable: if it were to come about as a result of negotiations among the major participants, and if it were enforced by a sizable foreign-troop contingent. The model is Bosnia. But the Dayton Accords ending that conflict were struck only after years of terrible bloodletting that exhausted all of the parties, and even so the agreement depended on a NATO troop presence and a quasi-colonial structure of international governance that are still in place over a decade later.
We are nowhere near such a solution in Iraq, and even if it could be struck it would not accomplish what most advocates of partition want, which is a withdrawal of American troops. On the contrary, a serious partition plan of this kind would require an indefinite, long-term presence by our forces—at least 450,000 soldiers, if we are to have the same troop-to-civilian ratio as in Bosnia. Despite claims to the contrary by Henry Kissinger and others, it is hard to imagine that nations like India or Indonesia would volunteer sizable numbers of their own troops to lessen our burden. They certainly have not done so in the past, notwithstanding considerable American pleading and arm-twisting. Yet without such outside supervision, any de-facto partition would result not in less violence but in a great deal more, at least in the short run.
What about a new strongman in Baghdad? In the abstract, such a proposal—call it Saddam Lite—cannot be ruled out on moral grounds: a soft authoritarianism would be preferable to today’s violent chaos. But it hardly seems practicable. By definition, a dictator requires the support of a strong army and police force. The Iraqi Security Forces, however, are too weak and too divided to control the country even on behalf of a representative government. Would they be more effective fighting on behalf of a dictator drawn from a single one of Iraq’s sectarian communities? And how would such a strongman gain their allegiance?
The one candidate who has been mentioned for this position is Ayad Allawi, who in 2004-2005 served as Iraq’s (appointed) prime minister. But Allawi appears to enjoy greater support among neighboring Sunni states than in Iraq itself, and there are no grounds for supposing he would be able to win the loyalty of the Iraqi Security Forces, much less use them to impose his diktat on the rest of the country. However ineffectual the Maliki government may be, we would be foolish to repeat the mistake we made in South Vietnam, where the American-sanctioned overthrow of Ngo Dinh Diem in 1963 resulted in a succession of rulers who proved even less satisfactory.
Then there is the more cold-blooded approach: accepting that nothing can prevent a civil war after most of our troops are gone and, instead of trying to limit the carnage, simply picking a side in the hope that it will prevail. This is indeed practicable, though many Americans might find the consequences hard to stomach. One need only recall the Sunni captives who in 2005 were allegedly tortured in the basement of Iraq’s interior ministry before being rescued by U.S. and Iraqi troops. In a real civil war, such stories would multiply a thousandfold, except that there would be no hope of rescue for those who fell into the hands of sectarian foes. If the U.S. were to back the more numerous Shiites—which in practice would mean backing not only the government but also militias like the Jaish al Mahdi and the Badr Brigade—we would assume a measure of moral complicity in whatever atrocities they might commit.
Moreover, even if the Shiites were to win decisively and rapidly, the outcome, at least in the short term, would likely empower the most radical elements among them, men of the gun like Moqtada al Sadr rather than men of peace like Ayatollah Ali Sistani. It would also signal a major increase in Iranian influence.
But in any case there can be no guarantee of a rapid and decisive victory. As I mentioned earlier, the Shiites, numerous though they are, are split among competing factions that may not cooperate effectively even against a common foe like the Sunnis. For their part, Iraq’s Sunnis possess great skill at unconventional warfare—as we have seen over the past four years—and would enjoy virtually unlimited access to arms and financing from neighboring Sunni states intent on blocking a Shiite takeover.
A cynical decision to throw in our lot with the Shiites might thus eventuate in a civil conflict that could drag on for years without resolution, and that would have dire consequences for the entire region. In their Brookings study, Daniel Byman and Kenneth Pollack surveyed three decades’ worth of recent civil wars from Congo to Lebanon. None, they found, was confined within the borders drawn neatly on maps. Such wars export refugees, terrorists, militant ideologies, and economic woes. This fallout destabilizes neighboring states, which in turn usually intervene to limit the damage or to expand their own spheres of influence. In the worst case, Byman and Pollack conclude, such spillover “can have truly catastrophic effects,” and in their opinion Iraq has “all the earmarks” of a worst case. That is easy enough to understand: with its vast oil wealth, there is far more to fight over in Iraq than in Congo or Chechnya.
Instead of backing one side in a civil war, Byman and Pollack therefore advocate a containment approach, to be effectuated by stationing forces along Iraq’s borders. This would presumably be a means of limiting American casualties while still averting the worst consequences of the carnage to come.
But this approach, too, has problems. Even if U.S. troops moved to the periphery, they would have to maintain logistical links to the outside world and undertake patrolling around their bases. Both activities would leave them vulnerable to insurgent attacks. And, as we have seen in the Green Zone in Baghdad, insurgents are becoming adept at “indirect fire”—mortars and rockets—that can surmount the highest walls. As long as U.S. troops remained in Iraq, they would continue to suffer casualties.
If the downside of the containment scenario is clear, its potential benefits are murky. Can we really expect sizable numbers of U.S. troops to remain in Iraq and do nothing while, a few miles away, ethnic cleansing and possibly even genocide are occurring? The “CNN effect”—the impact of lurid pictures of violence being broadcast continually around the world—could be devastating both for the morale of our armed forces and for Americans at home, to say nothing of what it would do to our international standing. In the Islamic world, it would only further reinforce the impression that we care nothing for Muslim lives and that we invaded Iraq only for its oil—the same myths that have fed terrorist recruiting.
A second problem concerns what exactly our troops would do to contain the civil war. Of course they could keep neighboring states from sending conventional troop formations into Iraq. But that is not very likely to happen in any case. Much harder to handle would be the kind of infiltration that already occurs, disguised as part of the normal commercial and tourist traffic in and out of Iraq. If we have not succeeded in stopping terrorists from entering the country today, or from leaving it to train in Iran and then return, smaller troop contingents would have a commensurately smaller chance of success.
And how would this rump U.S. force deal with massive refugee flows? Would it actively intervene to prevent Iraqi civilians from exiting to safety? If not, nearby states—including such American allies as Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and Jordan—could be swamped with “displaced persons.” But if we stop Iraqis at the border, we would be assuming responsibility for their fate. If we intend to avoid a Srebrenica-style horror, we would have to set up, administer, and protect giant refugee camps—what Byman and Pollack call “catch basins.” Such camps tend to become breeding grounds of extremism and terror. How would our forces react to attempts to organize terrorist groups in them? Would we police the camps from within even while protecting them from without? In that case, we would be forced to undertake exactly the same kind of urban counterinsurgency in which our combat forces are engaged today, from Baquba to Baghdad.
Finally, there is the ISG’s plan, incorporated in the proposed legislation before the Senate, to use a scaled-down U.S. force for counterterrorist and training missions. As I noted at the outset, advocates of this approach rarely come up with a figure, and when they do it tends to be very small—5,000, 20,000, possibly as many as 40,000 troops. But if such a strategy is to amount to more than a tissue-thin rhetorical cover for a rush to the exits, implementing it would require a much more substantial commitment.
The Center for a New American Security, a centrist Democratic think tank, has released a “phased transition plan” by James Miller and Shawn Brimley that calls for 60,000 troops to remain in Iraq at the end of 2008 to carry out the tasks in question over the next three or four years. The figure would reflect a big decrease in combat strength and a big increase in adviser strength, with the latter climbing from today’s level of fewer than 5,000 embedded advisers to 20,000 or so.
Creating that many advisers would require breaking up at least eight Brigade Combat Teams (out of the Army’s total of 43) in order to make use of their officers and NCO’s—something that cannot be done while the surge is going on and every available brigade is needed in Iraq or Afghanistan. Those advisers, in turn, would need a substantial support structure to keep them fed and supplied; aircraft to provide firepower as well as a means of transportation, surveillance, and medical evacuation; doctors and nurses to tend to their injuries; and Quick Reaction Forces to bail them out of trouble. The figure of 60,000 personnel would thus appear to be a very bare-bones estimate indeed.
Bing West and Owen West, a father-son team of distinguished Marine veterans, have come out with their own, slightly more robust version of this plan. They write in Slate:
A full-fledged Plan B would leave about 80,000 U.S. troops in Iraq in 2009, about half as many as will be in-country at the height of the surge. The adviser corps would nearly quadruple, to 20,000 troops, with another 25,000 in four combat brigades and special-forces units, plus 30,000 logistics troops. Another 5,000 Americans will live on the grounds of the new U.S. embassy in Baghdad, where they will rarely venture out. A comparative handful of American diplomats, called Provincial Reconstruction Teams, currently live with U.S. brigades. Far more are needed. Another 15,000 American contractors would provide security and training functions, up from 10,000 today. In addition, the number of foreign contractors who provide food and logistics to the U.S. military would remain steady at 90,000, or drop.
The Wests propose to maintain this deployment for at least a decade.
The West plan assuredly provides a greater margin of safety than the proposal from the Center for a New American Security. But it also dramatically underlines the fact that a realistic Plan B focused on counter-terrorism and advising cannot at the same time achieve the departure of “all” or “almost all” or perhaps even “most” U.S. troops any time soon, as is demanded by a large section of the American public.
Even if implemented along the Wests’ tough lines, moreover, such a strategy would remain a very iffy proposition in Iraq’s current security environment. Rapidly downsizing from today’s 160,000 troops to 80,000 or fewer would risk a collapse of the Iraqi Security Forces and indeed of the country’s entire government. Over the past several years, in one form or another, we repeatedly tried to implement a strategy of “as the Iraqis stand up, we will stand down,” and just as repeatedly we learned that the Iraqis on their own were incapable of standing up. Even with advisers to help them, they found themselves hopelessly outmatched by the world’s most deadly and depraved terrorists. That is why in 2006, before the surge, Iraq was on the brink of all-out civil war.
Adviser strategies work best in countries, like El Salvador in the 1980’s or the Philippines in the 1950’s, where longstanding and robust military services already exist. That has not been the case in Iraq ever since we demolished the Iraqi security infrastructure in 2003. In such a situation, leaving behind a small number of American advisers would place both them and the Iraqis in real jeopardy, no matter how many Quick Reaction Forces were standing by. Advisers, after all, would not be able to stay on giant bases. To do their job properly, they would have to operate alongside Iraqi troops in the field. Casualties would be inevitable, perhaps even as many as we are suffering today.
The use of Special Operations Forces (SOF) under these conditions—included in the ISG plan and vigorously advocated by Congressman Jack Murtha and others—would also run high risks, again with uncertain payoffs. Such forces have had little enough success against terrorists in unfriendly states like Iran and Syria, or even in politically ambivalent states like Pakistan and Saudi Arabia. In order to be effective, special operators must have access to good intelligence that can only be generated on the ground. They also need a permissive political climate, allowing them to swoop in without worrying about diplomatic ramifications, plus a relatively high degree of assurance that substantial rescue forces are available to bail them out of a jam.
All of those fortuitous conditions exist today in Iraq, allowing our SOF raiders to roll up more jihadist desperados there than anywhere else in the world. But even so there are heavy limitations on what the most skilled special operators can accomplish. The presence in Iraq of the Joint Special Operations Command—comprising Delta Force, SEAL’s, and other “Tier 1” operators—has not prevented terrorists at various times from turning cities like Falluja and Baquba into redoubts of horror.
A recent Los Angeles Times article summarizes what U.S. troops found in Baquba when our forces finally stormed the city:
For more than a year, hundreds of masked gunmen loyal to al Qaeda cruised this capital of their self-declared state, hauling Shiite Muslims from their homes and leaving bodies in the dusty, trash-strewn streets.
They set up a religious court and prisons, aid stations and food stores. And they imposed their fundamentalist interpretation of Islam on a population that was mostly too poor to flee and too terrified to resist.
If Special Operations Forces could not prevent the establishment under their noses of a Taliban-style “Islamic state” in Baquba during the past year, how much luck would they have operating from Kuwait or the Kurdish region, as suggested by proponents of this approach? It would be like trying to police Boston from Washington, D.C.
If none of these strategies holds out a serious hope of success, what, then, does? Time and again in Iraq, we have seen that substantial ground forces, if properly employed, can indeed rout terrorists. Consider the success of offensives since 2004 in Falluja, Najaf, Tal Afar, Qaim, Hit, Ramadi, and Baquba. In the past, the problem with many of these operations was that we lacked enough troops to sustain a long-term presence after taking the city. Now, as a combined result of the surge, greater cooperation from Iraqi tribes, and more effective Iraqi fighting forces, we may finally have gathered enough strength to execute, at least in some critical locales, all phases of the “clear, hold, and build” approach that is at the heart of successful counterinsurgency warfare.
It would be extremely short-sighted if, as a result of war-weariness, we were to abort this classic strategy before it has had a chance to be fully implemented. As I noted at the outset, early signs have been positive: U.S. and Iraqi troops have been reducing violence in Baghdad and surrounding areas. In late July, returning from an eight-day visit to the front lines, Kenneth Pollack and his Brookings colleague Michael O’Hanlon, both of whom have been harshly critical of the administration’s “miserable handling of Iraq,” reported in a widely cited New York Times op-ed that they were “surprised by the gains” being made. “We are finally getting somewhere in Iraq, at least in military terms,” they wrote.
But counterinsurgency operations cannot be concluded as swiftly as an armored blitzkrieg. This is not a three-day or three-week or three-month offensive. It will take up to a year to see if current operations are bearing fruit.
The strain on U.S. forces, especially the army, is great. Nevertheless, the current force level can be maintained through at least the spring of next year. Thereafter, we could begin to draw down troops at the rate of one brigade a month until August, when we would be down to a pre-surge force of 15 Brigade Combat Teams or about 140,000 troops. This, assuming we stick with the current schedule of 15-month tours of duty, could then be maintained through 2009, with adjustments up or down at the recommendation of General Petraeus.
While soldiers in Iraq naturally yearn for home, morale remains high, reenlistment rates are at record levels, and troops in the field often express to visitors their desire to “finish the job.” Advocates of withdrawal who claim to speak for the men and women in camouflage are not listening to what most of them actually say. Nor do they consider the implications of pulling them out in defeat. Coming on the heels of so many years of hard work and sacrifice, a political decision to give up the fight would have a devastating impact on morale in the armed forces, no doubt leading, as it did after the Vietnam war, to an exodus of veteran NCO’s and junior officers. That could negate one of the supposed benefits of withdrawal—namely, an immediate improvement in our military readiness to deal with other crises around the world.
This is not an argument for staying in Iraq at current levels indefinitely. Sooner or later, we will have to draw down our forces. It therefore makes sense to undertake now the kind of detailed planning that will be needed to effect a transition to a smaller force, perhaps 80,000 to 100,000 strong. Assuming sufficient political support at home—and that is by no means inconceivable, if the situation on the ground continues to improve— such a force could remain in Iraq for many years, focusing, as the ISG proposed, on tasks like advising local security forces and hunting down terrorists. But while the ISG approach makes sense in the long term, moving to a smaller force right now, as so many critics of the administration urge, would constitute an unacceptable risk.
The more security that our “surge” forces create and consolidate today, the greater the probability that a transition will work tomorrow. If we start withdrawing troops regardless of the consequences, we will not only put our remaining soldiers at greater risk but, as things inevitably turn nastier, imperil public support for any level of commitment, whether at 160,000 or 60,000.
Notwithstanding some positive preliminary results, the surge might still fail in the long run if Iraqis prove incapable of reaching political compromises even in a more secure environment. But, for all its faults and weaknesses, the surge is the least bad option we have. Its opponents, by contrast, have been loudly trying to beat something with nothing. If they do not like President Bush’s chosen strategy, the onus is on them to propose a credible alternative that could avert what would in all probability be the most serious military defeat in our history. So far, they have come up empty.
—August 8, 2007
Max Boot is a senior fellow in national-security studies at the Council on Foreign Relations and the author of “War Made New: Weapons, Warriors, and the Making of the Modern World,” coming out in paperback this month.
By RALPH PETERS
New York Post, August 16, 2007 –
TWO days ago, al Qaeda det onated four massive truck bombs in three Iraqi villages, killing at least 250 civilians (perhaps as many as 500) and wounding many more. The bombings were a sign of al Qaeda’s frustration, desperation and fear.
The victims were ethnic Kurd Yazidis, members of a minor sect with pre-Islamic roots. Muslim extremists condemn them (wrongly) as devil worshippers. The Yazidis live on the fringes of society.
That’s one of the two reasons al Qaeda targeted those settlements: The terrorist leaders realize now that the carnage they wrought on fellow Muslims backfired, turning once-sympathetic Sunni Arabs against them. The fanatics calculated that Iraqis wouldn’t care much about the Yazidis.
As far as the Thieves of Baghdad (also known as Iraq’s government) go, the terrorists were right. Iraqi minorities, including Christians, have been classified as fair game by Muslim butchers. Mainstream Iraqis simply look away.
But the second reason for those dramatic bombings was that al Qaeda needs to portray Iraq as a continuing failure of U.S. policy. Those dead and maimed Yazidis were just props: The intended audience was Congress.
Al Qaeda has been badly battered. It’s lost top leaders and thousands of cadres. Even more painful for the Islamists, they’ve lost ground among the people of Iraq, including former allies. Iraqis got a good taste of al Qaeda. Now they’re spitting it out.
The foreign terrorists slaughtering the innocent recognize that their only remaining hope of pulling off a come-from-way-behind win is to convince your senator and your congressman or -woman that it’s politically expedient to hand a default victory to a defeated al Qaeda.
Expect more attempts to generate massive bloodshed in Iraq in the coming weeks. The terrorists are well aware of the exaggerated-by-all-parties importance of Gen. David Petraeus’ Sept. 15 progress report to Congress. They’ll do all they can to embarrass the general and provide ammunition to the surrender caucus.
Meanwhile, our military progress has become undeniable. Even Democratic presidential aspirants have started hedging their peace-at-any-price positions. To the horror of al Qaeda and left-wing bloggers alike, cutting and running is starting to look unfashionable.
How has Petraeus changed the outlook so swiftly? Numerous factors are in play, but two of his personal characteristics have helped keep him from making a single wrong move thus far.
* First, Petraeus is relentless. The result is that, for the first time, our military approach has become relentless, too.
In the past, we followed up military wins by stepping back and hoping that the reduction of Fallujah or the latest shoot-’em-up with Muqtada al-Sadr’s thugs would prove decisive. We were wrong every time – all our forbearance achieved was to give our enemies time to recover.
Petraeus changed the rules, and God bless him for it. He may have a high-school-prom smile for the media, but the general’s a clinch fighter who ignores the bell – and who isn’t above landing a blow when the ref ain’t looking. It’s exactly the approach we’ve needed.
* The second quality is his leadership style. Micro-managers lose control in war. While Petraeus is interested in every detail and spends plenty of time on the ground with tactical commanders, he assigns missions, gives the essential guidance – then trusts subordinates to do their jobs.
Previous U.S. commanders worried about the wrong things, and they worried all the time. Petraeus is concerned about the one thing that matters: Winning.
He’s that rarer-than-a-unicorn beast, a full general capable of learning. Petraeus hasn’t “defended his dissertation” in the face of contrary facts. The politically correct counterinsurgency manual he produced before taking up this assignment delighted the left-of-center think-tank crowd – but they must be very disappointed today. Once in command in Iraq, Petraeus kept the doctrinal bits that worked, but dumped the baloney.
He’s doing what it really takes: Fighting. Our troops are killing those who need killing; tens of thousands of terrorists, insurgents and militiamen are in lockup, with more coming in every day. And any member of the NYPD can tell you that taking murderers off the streets works.
Petraeus is also pursuing political progress, but that effort’s still lagging. Not his fault: The most that our military can do is to help establish the conditions for Iraq’s leaders to succeed. But the old rivalries, bitter hatreds and personal pettiness of Baghdad’s politicians have been more discouraging than the terror attacks.
That said, we’re not really in Iraq for Iraq’s sake now, but for our own. The long-mismanaged situation has morphed from a grand attempt to create a model democracy in the Middle East to become a fight for our strategic security – knocking al Qaeda down, keeping Iran out and shaping a new Iraq that’s at least benign where our interests are concerned.
Here’s how Gen. Petraeus summed it up for The Post on Tuesday: “Right now, we’re on the offensive, striving to build on the gains made in the past two months by conducting strike operations to retain the initiative against al-Qaeda-in-Iraq, to address the challenge of the Iranian-supported Shia extremists and to try to reduce further the level of ethno-sectarian violence in Baghdad and other fault line areas.”
Al Qaeda down, Iran out and sectarian violence reduced. Sounds like a plan.
Ralph Peters’ new book is “Wars of Blood and Faith: The Conflicts That Will Shape the Twenty-First Century.” He returns to Iraq this weekend.
Baker Company 1-15 rallies villagers to the Coalition and against the insurgency.
by Jeff Emanuel
Weekly Standard, 08/20/2007 12:00:00 AM
THOUGH EASE IS AN extremely relative attribute in this case, hunting and killing the enemy in the Salman Pak region of Iraq (southeast of Baghdad) is, in fact, the easy part of the U.S. mission there. ‘Terrain denial’ artillery missions are staged in known al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) areas on a nightly basis, attack aviation assets are constantly scouring the area and firing on militant outposts, and, with the launching of the division-sized Operation Marne Huskey on August 15, major air-and-land offensives are being conducted in virtually every known insurgent stronghold and outpost in the region.
But fighting is what these soldiers have been trained for, and what they have been preparing–both mentally and physically–to do their entire careers. Very few soldiers have been trained to carry out nation-building or ambassadorial missions, and in the case of an area like Salman Pak, which has seen a negligible troop presence since the initial invasion, trust and rapport cannot be improved or built on, but rather must be created and constructed entirely from scratch. This is an infinitely more difficult (and time-consuming) process, but one which is absolutely essential to the coalition effort in Iraq. The key to making it happen is demonstrating, on a daily basis, that the coalition has the best interest of the Iraqi people–from security, to services, to medical care–at heart.
And there are newfound signs of success in the area just north of Salman Pak, along the road known to 3rd Brigade as “Route Wild,” between the villages of Wuerdiya and Ja’ara. It all began with a phone call. During the first week of August, an Iraqi man who lived in the area, and whose brother was the sheik of the al Jabouri tribe, called Captain Rich Thompson, head of 3rd Brigade’s Baker Company 1-15 Infantry and the local ground commander, and asked for a meeting. Tired of the persistent insurgent infighting in his area, the man wanted information on starting his tribe’s own ‘Concerned Citizens’ brigade, to augment the National Police and to defend their land and their clan against terrorism.
Called “basically a thumb in the eye [of] a Maliki government that won’t get its [act] together” by one officer I spoke with, the Concerned Citizens program, another brainchild of MNF-I commander General David Petraeus, puts ground-level security in the hands of the individual tribes and groups who need it most. The program allows for tribes to arm themselves and to conduct their own security operations and patrols, provided that they agree to wear easily identifiable uniforms and work with and respect the authority of the National Police and Coalition forces (in addition, members of the tribal security contingent must submit to the coalition’s biometric identification database).
“I hope they’re really serious about [this],” Thompson told me. “If we can get them going with their own security, and the other tribes around them can see what a good thing they have and decide that they want it too, then we could see a serious improvement in this area.” The bottom line on the insurgency, said Thompson, a former Ranger noncommissioned officer, “is that I don’t want them in my AO (area of operations). I don’t care where they go, as long as they’re not here–and, if everybody takes that attitude, Iraqis and soldiers alike, and works for that goal, then sooner or later there won’t be any place for [the insurgents] to go.”
At 4:00 PM on August 10th, Baker Company 1-15 pulled off of Route Wild and into the small neighborhood where the al Jabouri sheik and his brother lived. Dismounting the vehicles, Thompson and a squad of soldiers from Baker Co’s 3rd Platoon moved slowly up the narrow, windy dirt road. “We’re looking for a mosque,” Thompson said, periodically checking his GPS to make sure that we were headed in the right direction and toward the agreed-upon meeting place.
Upon reaching the small, run-down, blue-domed mosque, the squad was met by a middle-aged male wearing a gray golf shirt and the bottoms of a black tracksuit. He led us to the sheik’s house. We were invited in and, as we sat down in the large living room, were treated to the story (through Baker Company’s Iraqi interpreter, ‘Jim’) of how the tribe had come to this point. “They burned our house,” Jim translated. “They killed the people here and the dogs ate them.” While the latter may be an example of the hyperbole that many Iraqis are known for, the house did in fact show the telltale signs of recent fire. Black scorch marks were clearly visible on the portions of the cement floor not covered by carpet, and, though it had been plastered and painted over, charred spots were visible on the wall, as well.
“Thank you for contacting me,” Thompson said, as the sheik, his brother, and a pair of neighborhood gentlemen gathered around for tea. “We’re here to help you; tell me what you need.” The brothers and their companions spent over an hour detailing the transgressions of the insurgency against their tribe and their village, from the fire to alleged kidnappings, and expressed a great interest in manning their own tribal security force. “We set up a police checkpoint for you right outside the neighborhood here,” Thompson reminded them. “Crime has certainly gone down since then.”
“They only work from 7am to 5pm,” the sheik responded, his tone showing his distaste for the National Police as a whole. “We need to be safe all the time. We need an army here, and you are not enough soldiers to keep us safe.”
Thompson very quickly explained the ground rules governing the Concerned Citizens program: AK-47s are authorized but not provided, uniforms are required (the tribe had already decided on a uniform consisting of what the man who met us at the mosque had been wearing, and which would be augmented by brightly-colored running vests supplied by U.S. forces), and all personnel must submit to Coalition forces and Iraqi National Police. The latter caused a bit of consternation on the part of the al Jabouri (a sizable portion of the NP force is believed to be corrupt), but the desire to secure themselves appeared to outweigh any hesitation.
At the end of the meeting, Thompson promised to return in the near future with $3,000 for the purchase of uniforms for the sixty promised guards. In exchange, all sixty men would be present and in formation so that they could be entered into Baker Company’s biometric identification database. He also informed them that, in the next week, Baker Co. would be holding a “Med Op,” a free clinic, for the villagers in the area. All sick and ailing were welcome to come, and Coalition medics would treat them.
THE MED OP WAS SET FOR August 16th in Wuerdiya, a little village just off of Route Wild that was recently the site of an insurgent (possibly JAM) attack against unarmed civilians (see “Ashes and Dust” in the August 16th DAILY STANDARD). At 7:45 AM that day, Baker Co’s Third Platoon arrived at the site where the Wuerdiya Med Op would soon be held–a school building (refurbished last year by the Iraqi Ministry of Education) next door to a mosque and directly across the street from the site where the insurgent attack had taken place. With the help of the building’s twelve-year-old caretaker, soldiers filled sandbags and placed them along ledges and railings to make the facility more defensible, and aid bags containing wheat, barley, and rice were unloaded from the platoon’s Humvees and staged for distribution. Off to one side of the exit, a room was set up for the processing and inputting into the coalition’s biometric identification database of all military-aged males who would pass through the gates that day.
By 8:30, the soldiers of 3rd Platoon had taken up their defensive positions, both on foot (behind the newly-filled sandbags) and in Bradley Fighting Vehicles, staged at each end of the narrow street, and representatives of the Army’s Civil Affairs unit had arrived, with a trailer of gifts for adults and children alike–including soccer balls, school bags, Iraqi national soccer team uniform replicas, and more food. As the CA soldiers unloaded the trailer, people began to peek out of the front gates of their homes, and a rush by the neighborhood’s more courageous children to the site of the just-revealed goodies soon followed. With a grin big enough to clearly reveal a missing front tooth, one young boy, no older than six, accepted the soldiers’ gifts of a bag and a soccer uniform and then raced home at full speed, perhaps to show his parents his new prizes, or perhaps to cache them before an older child showed up to take them.
As the gifts were handed out, and as the Iraqi National Police began to announce, via the megaphones on their Chevrolet pickup trucks, that the clinic would be starting soon, more people appeared on the street, flocking to the school building from houses and side streets in every direction. The Civil Affairs soldiers quickly established two examination rooms and a makeshift pharmacy, and by 9:30 the gates were open and people were crowding into the schoolhouse’s courtyard.
Sergeant First Class Marcus, a Special Forces medic (in accordance with USSOCOM regulations, special operators are identified by rank and first name only), manned the first examination room along with his interpreter, Yousef, a recent graduate of Baghdad University with a degree in Physics.
The first patient to make an appearance was a sixty-year-old man in a wheelchair, pushed by his middle-aged son. “He can’t feel his legs,” Yousef explained, as the man described his ailments in rapid-fire Arabic. “He fell down about six months ago and hurt his back, and he cannot walk or move his legs.”
Marcus checked the patient’s back and immediately diagnosed him with a slipped disc; however, he said, “that’s not the reason for the leg problems.” He quickly checked the man’s toe circulation and gauged his blood pressure, then made his diagnosis: the patient suffered from a blood pressure condition, which would have been easily treatable long ago had he had access to the simplest of medications. “Take one of these once a day for a week,” he told the man, though Yousef, after fetching a small package of caplets from the pharmacy, “and your legs will be as good as new. You’ll be walking around again by next week.”
“Praise Allah,” the man said over and over again from his wheelchair in response to this amazing news, looking alternately at Marcus and at the ceiling and gesturing skyward with his hand. “Praise Allah!”
The treatment of annoying–or even debilitating–ailments via prescription of just the simplest drugs was a recurring theme throughout the morning, further proving that some of the things that are most taken for granted every day in America–like the Tylenol, NyQuil, and antibiotics, and the care of a competent medical professional–are, in this country, life-changing gifts.
This is not to say that the Iraqi people are, on the whole, weak, sickly, or overwhelming complainers. “There’s an extremely high tolerance for pain among the people here, as well,” Marcus told me. “If they say something hurts, then you’d better believe that it really, really hurts. I’ve had young kids in here with broken arms that I’ve had to set, and they didn’t cry one bit. They grimaced, perhaps, but they dealt with the pain very, very well.”
“They’re not a medicated society at all,” he continued, after setting a man’s dislocated hand and sending him away with Tylenol. “That’s why a 500mg Tylenol works wonders for them–whereas if you were to take it, it probably wouldn’t do very much.”
For the first half of the four-hour clinic, the preponderance of patients were adults suffering from various ailments–from cists, to infected sand-flea bites, to a surgical scar that still had not healed, but by 11 AM, an increasing number of parents had begun to filter into the schoolyard with children in tow. The majority of the children had one of three complaints: an ear infection, strep throat, or asthma–all of which could be alleviated or cured with the simple prescription of medication.
But not every case was that simple. One elderly man who came in to be treated for ‘thrush,’ a bacterial infection of the throat, was sent away with antibiotics and, after the door closed behind him, was declared to be “dying of an Abdominal Aortic Aneurysm” by a less-than-happy Marcus. Another child showed the telltale signs of cancer. Typhoid fever and strep throat were the most common of the viral and bacterial ailments (“I’ve probably treated 800 cases of typhoid here,” Marcus told me), and for men who labored outside, asthma was very common (though not a terrible problem), as were slipped discs–something that, without surgical facilities, the medics on site couldn’t do a thing about, other than prescribe Tylenol for the pain.
However, with the only exceptions being those injuries and ailments which required surgery or, like diabetes, precise dosages of special medication, almost every person who came to the schoolhouse for treatment received it, and many left praising Allah for the painkillers, decongestants, or antibiotics that they had been given. Hundreds of people left the schoolhouse happy, with their gifts of medication, food, and soccer paraphernalia (as well cards showing the most wanted insurgents in the area, and a telephone number to call with any tips on insurgent activity), and returned to their homes satisfied with the coalition’s efforts, at least on this day.
EARNING THE RESPECT, GRATITUDE, and cooperation of the Iraqi populace is time-consuming and difficult. But without the surge in U.S. forces this spring, or the new strategy put in place by Gen. Petraeus, the people of this region–as well as the other regions affected by the arrival and operations of the surge brigades—would be facing a far less secure environment, and would still be without the basic medical care and services provided by the Coalition.
“People ask me, ‘Is the surge working?’,” Colonel Wayne Grigsby, 3rd Brigade commander, said to me. “And I say, ‘How can it not be?’ We’re in these areas that no soldiers have been for months and years, we’ve got al Qaeda , JAM , and JAI discombobulated, and we’re showing the people there–people who might not have seen an American soldier in years–a sustained presence, catching bad guys, building checkpoints, and making life safer for them.”
“Again, I say, ‘How can it not be working?'”
Jeff Emanuel, a special operations veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom, is a columnist and a director of weblog RedState.com. He is currently embedded with the U.S. military in Iraq.
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