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November 16, 2006

Iraq: The Road Ahead

Yesterday while stuck in Beltway traffic the half vast editorial staff survived another close encounter with the Senate Armed Services Committee courtesy of National Public Radio. The readership will no doubt be relieved to learn that owing to a suspicious dearth of DimWitted bumperstickerage on our nation's highways, yesterday's experience will not be producing one of our epic rants.

The hearings themselves presented a perfect microcosm of the debate over where we are in Iraq, what went wrong, and where to go from here. In many ways they were the war on the home front in small: rife with truisms and trite oversimplifications cited by those on both sides of the political aisle with axes to grind, most of which were patiently batted down time and time again by tired men brought in to face a mix of mostly hostile, but at times sympathetic questions from people who want simple answers to complex problems.

The problem is that in most cases there aren't any, and the few answers that are simple are unpalatable.


George Friedman gives a cogent summary of the current situation in Iraq:

Essentially, U.S. strategy in Iraq is to create an effective coalition government, consisting of all the major ethnic and sectarian groups. In order to do that, the United States has to create a security environment in which the government can function. Once this has been achieved, the Iraqi government would take over responsibility for security. The problem, however, is twofold. First, U.S. forces have not been able to create a sufficiently secure environment for the government to function. Second, there are significant elements within the coalition that the United States is trying to create who either do not want such a government to work -- and are allied with insurgents to bring about its failure -- or who want to improve their position within the coalition, using the insurgency as leverage. In other words, U.S. forces are trying to create a secure environment for a coalition whose members are actively working to undermine the effort.

The core issue is that no consensus exists among Iraqi factions as to what kind of country they want. This is not only a disagreement among Sunnis, Shia and Kurds, but also deep disagreements within these separate groups as to what a national government (or even a regional government, should Iraq be divided) should look like. It is not that the Iraqi government in Baghdad is not doing a good job, or that it is corrupt, or that it is not motivated. The problem is that there is no Iraqi government as we normally define the term: The "government" is an arena for political maneuvering by mutually incompatible groups.

Until the summer of 2006, the U.S. strategy had been to try to forge some sort of understanding among the Iraqi groups, using American military power as a goad and guarantor of any understandings. But the decision by the Shia, propelled by Iran, to intensify operations against the Sunnis represented a deliberate decision to abandon the political process. More precisely, in our view, the Iranians decided that the political weakness of George W. Bush, the military weakness of U.S. forces in Iraq, and the general international environment gave them room to reopen the question of the nature of the coalition, the type of regime that would be created and the role that Iran could play in Iraq. In other words, the balanced coalition government that the United States wanted was no longer attractive to the Iranians and Iraqi Shia. They wanted more.

The political foundation for U.S. military strategy dissolved. The possibility of creating an environment sufficiently stable for an Iraqi government to operate -- when elements of the Iraqi government were combined with Iranian influence to raise the level of instability -- obviously didn't work. The United States might have had enough force in place to support a coalition government that was actively seeking and engaged in stabilization. It did not have enough force to impose its will on multiple insurgencies that were supported by factions of the government the United States was trying to stabilize.

By the summer of 2006, the core strategy had ceased to function.

The implications of Friedman's analysis are striking:

1. Currently the US is caught in a chicken-or-the-egg conundrum: a precondition for handing over security to the Iraqis is the establishment of a sufficiently secure environment that the Iraqi coalition government can function, yet members of that coalition are actively fomenting civil unrest in hopes of furthering their own agendas.

2. US forces may have been sufficient to maintain order if the Iraqi coalition government were working together, but the perceived political weakness of George Bush and the US military allowed Iran to split the coalition and entice the Iraqi Shia into abandoning a political solution.

What does item number two tell us about the effects of dissent in wartime? Earlier this year there was some good discussion about the limits of dissent here, here, and here. Sadly, in the current political environment any responsible discussion of whether citizens of a free society have any duty to consider the consequences of their words during wartime is inevitably greeted with hysterical accusations of goosestepping all over the First Amendment. Ironically, it is the advocates of free speech themselves who seek to declare the topic of responsible speech "off limits" with their talk of swift boating, questioning of patriotism, and chickhawks rather than facing it honestly. These are not rational responses to a serious question, but covert ad hominem attacks designed to divert attention from a very real consequence of their dissent: that it is, in fact, demonstrably useful to our enemies whether or not they intend it to be. We know this for a fact: they openly make use of it in their propapaganda broadcasts and recruiting efforts. And yet, to mention this obvious truth is somehow considered hitting 'below the belt'.

Friedman's point about Iran having driven a wedge into the Iraqi coalition government was taken up by Senator Joe Lieberman during the Committee hearings yesterday. Lieberman came to the relief of embattled General John Abizaid, who had been facing a torrent of questions from Senator John McCain, who favors sending an additional 20,000 troops into Iraq:

Under hard questioning from McCain, Abizaid spoke frankly about the stress on U.S. forces, which he said constrains any major troop increase. "We can put in 20,000 more Americans tomorrow and achieve a temporary effect. But when you look at the overall American force pool that's available out there, the ability to sustain that commitment is simply not something that we have right now with the size of the Army and the Marine Corps," he said. He later told a House panel that exceeding current troop levels would place "a tremendous strain" on the Army.

McCain, who favors a significant boost in U.S. forces, quizzed Abizaid on why more troops have not been sent to the Sunni insurgent stronghold of Anbar province, where U.S. casualties are among the highest in Iraq and Marine commanders say they lack sufficient forces.

"I regret deeply that you seem to think that the status quo and the rate of progress we're making is acceptable. I think most Americans do not,"

Abizaid sees things differently:

The general also discouraged calls for a timetable to withdraw. Abizaid, the top U.S. commander in the Middle East, said the security situation in Iraq is improving -- and he does not see a need for more U.S. combat troops.

Abizaid told the Senate Armed Service Committee that a key to success in Iraq is to increase the size of the Iraqi forces, not U.S. troops. He said the Iraqis have to do it for themselves. "I believe in my heart of hearts that the Iraqis must win this battle with our help," Abizaid says. "We can win with the Iraqis if we put our effort into the Iraqis as our first priority, and that's what I think we should do."

Abizaid proposed beefing up the size of the American training teams. There are now about 4,000 soldiers and Marines taking part in the training effort, mostly in 11-man teams. That action alone, he says, may temporarily boost the level of U.S. forces, now at 152,000.

There are about 315,000 Iraqi security forces that the Pentagon says are trained and equipped. But commanders on the ground say Iraqi units are undermanned and not well equipped. And in some cases, they have been infiltrated by sectarian militias.

Abizaid said violence has eased somewhat, and American and Iraqi troops are working closely together. He also told the senators that the Iraqi government must reach out to the Sunni minority and curb militia groups.

Hayden, director of the CIA, was more pessimistic than Abizaid about the prospects for ending the violence. But strikingly he was no less adamant that this was a struggle we cannot afford to lose, and he also concurred with Abizaid that in the end, the Iraqis would be the decisive factor, saying that 'in the end, victory must have an Iraqi and not an American face'. Hayden's prepared statement to the Committee lays out the stakes compellingly:

An al-Qa’ida victory in Iraq would mean a fundamentalist state that shelters jihadists and serves as a launching pad for terrorist operations throughout the region—and in the United States.

Under questioning by Senator Lieberman, Hayden also made another interesting comment. In a line of questioning clearly aimed at the Iraq Study Group, Lieberman asked about the presence of Iranian agents in Iraq. Hayden characterized their aims as clearly antithetical to ours and their presence as "extremely deleterious" to establishing a democratic government and getting the violence under control. In his opinion, their desire was to establish a Shia-run government rather than one in which power was democratically shared.


After five years of being the Party in Opposition, of complaining that Donald Rumsfeld and the White House refused to listen to the generals, the big question that ought to be looming in the minds of Americans is, now that they're in power, will the Democratic Party listen to the generals they've been quoting for five years? Because they are speaking, and speaking with one voice: stay the course, and send more troops:

One of the most resonant arguments in the debate over Iraq holds that the United States can move forward by pulling its troops back, as part of a phased withdrawal. If American troops begin to leave and the remaining forces assume a more limited role, the argument holds, it will galvanize the Iraqi government to assume more responsibility for securing and rebuilding Iraq.

This is the case now being argued by many Democrats, most notably Senator Carl Levin of Michigan, the incoming chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, who asserts that the withdrawal of American troops from Iraq should begin within four to six months.

But this argument is being challenged by a number of military officers, experts and former generals, including some who have been among the most vehement critics of the Bush administration’s Iraq policies.

For a long time, John McCain was a lonely campaigner for an increase in our commitment in Iraq an Afghanistan. Some attribute his stance to political convenience, but with one son in the Marine Corps and another at the US Naval Academy, McCain is one of the few to have put the future of his family in harm's way. And his arguments are gaining force: Chester reports that, contrary to the President's critics (who have accused him, prematurely, of caving to the Baker commission) he is considering sending more troops to Iraq:

President George Bush has told senior advisers that the US and its allies must make "a last big push" to win the war in Iraq and that instead of beginning a troop withdrawal next year, he may increase US forces by up to 20,000 soldiers, according to sources familiar with the administration's internal deliberations . . .

Point one of the strategy calls for an increase rather than a decrease in overall US force levels inside Iraq, possibly by as many as 20,000 soldiers . . . The reinforcements will be used to secure Baghdad, scene of the worst sectarian and insurgent violence, and enable redeployments of US, coalition and Iraqi forces elsewhere in the country.

Point two of the plan stresses the importance of regional cooperation to the successful rehabilitation of Iraq. This could involve the convening of an international conference of neighbouring countries or more direct diplomatic, financial and economic involvement of US allies such as Saudi Arabia and Kuwait . . .

Chester comments:

The idea that Syria or Iran will help much here is laughable. But asking Kuwait or Saudi Arabia for assistance of some sort, whether diplomatic, financial, or of an intelligence nature, could pay great dividends. Saudi Arabia and Kuwait are primarily Sunni states, and it will not please them to know that the US is abandoning Iraq to be dominated by Iran, and probably for its Sunni population to be ethnically cleansed. It is in their interests to assist us -- if only for the realpolitik goal of thwarting Iran's regional ambitions.

Exactly. But more importantly, the threat of involving neighboring Sunni states strengthens our hand and gives the US much-needed leverage over Iran - something that George Friedman pointed out in his excellent Stratfor analysis. The missing piece in all of this has always been what a visibly weakened Bush administration could offer (or alternatively hold over) Iran to bring them to the table:

This is going to be the hard part for Bush. The last thing he wants is to enhance Iranian power. But the fact is that Iranian power already has been enhanced by the ability of Iraqi Shia to act with indifference to U.S. wishes. By complying with this recommendation, Washington would not be conceding much. It would be acknowledging reality. Of course, publicly acknowledging what has happened is difficult, but the alternative is a continuation of the current strategy -- also difficult. Bush has few painless choices.

What a settlement with Iran would look like is, of course, a major question. We have discussed that elsewhere. For the moment, the key issue is not what a settlement would look like but whether there can be a settlement at all with Iran -- or even direct discussions. In a sense, that is a more difficult problem than the final shape of an agreement.

Bottom line: the Democrats, having weakened our own bargaining position almost irreparably, have now gained a measure of power. A mainstay of their argument was that the civilian leadership had a duty to listen to the military.

The question is, now that they have a voice, will they do as they advised the White House to do, or will they recklessly push an political agenda that virtually every intelligence and military analyst agrees is hostile to our long term interests?

Stay tuned - it's going to be a long, bumpy ride.

Update: A clarification is perhaps in order.

I have, in general, not been sympathetic to the 'more boots on the ground' school of thought, if by more boots on the ground one means the oft-misnamed Powell doctrine of overwhelming force, which I believe is clearly misapplied in a counterinsurgency situation. But that doesn't mean I reject the notion of careful application of marginal increases in force (for instance, restoring our current troop numbers to their former levels) out of hand.

See TigerHawk's post on Counterinsurgency for some valuable perspective. I thought Mycroft's comment particularly astute: within reason, it's not how many boots on the ground, but how you deploy them that matters.

One of the mainstays of counterinsurgency doctrine is minimum force.

If your force becomes too large and unwieldy, then the commanders become terribly out of touch with the local situation as they become absorbed in directing the operations of their own personnel, which is a far more familiar and welcome task. Also, with a long view, a minimal troop presence forces the locals to stand up and take charge, instead of allowing them to become grievously dependent on your supplies and firepower.

However, it is also of primary importance to use the troops you do have wisely: to put them on the ground, in support of your political goals. So I wonder: what would have happened had those 500 troops Lt. Hegseth talks about been deployed in Samarra proper, bunking down with the locals, instead of coagulating at a large base? And, also, would Lt. Hegseth's achievements in Samarra better stand the test of time if the City Council always had a large American presence to fall back on, or if they learned, slowly, painfully, but surely, to stand up on their own?

Too few troops, or too few in hidden bases away from the locals, and you never get a handle on the situation. Too many, and the locals become dependent on you even as you become alienated from them. On these considerations does counterinsurgency turn.

This aligns well with General Abizaid's testimony before the SASC, and this gets to the second part of my clarification. I said the Democrats should listen to the Generals, but again the question becomes one of General-shopping, which is a detestable practice whose perpetrators should be taken to the nearest public square and shot without delay. It strikes me that retired Generals are perhaps not best versed in the resource constraints of the active forces, and so are not the best source of "expert testimony" on what the services can afford to pony up at this time, nor on what is needed in theater.

With the awful, awful specter of Darth Rummy finally gone, perhaps the poor pitiful scared active duty Generals yearning to breathe free and drink of the wonderful nectar of First Amendment candor can FINALLY say what they really think....

/sarcasm. We've listened to at least a year of Democrat insinuations that some of our nation's finest are at best cowards and at worst liars. Now that Rumsfeld has stepped down, one wonders what will be their excuse for disregarding their testimony? In any event, their opinions should weigh far more heavily in any decisions made by Congress than those of men long since retired and out of the decision and information loops.

But then I'm just a dumb Marine wife.

Update II: Patrick sends: I have a related essay at American Spectator online today that you may find interesting. Do check it out - it's excellent. Bonus points for the Vizzini reference...

Regarding the predictability of Muslim-on-Muslim violence, the editorial staff had to laugh at this item a few days ago, which shows that not only the White House had high hopes for things not taking as long after the fall of Baghdad:

we should have no illusions; that it’s going to take at least two to three months of a very strong military presence in Iraq to re-establish law and order, get humanitarian assistance going, get the water going, the electricity going, in other words establish the secure premise upon which reconstruction can take place both physically in the country and in terms of political evolution. But there should be a performance-based phase-out of the U.S. military presence. Let’s establish law and order. Let’s get the reconstruction progress going forward as quickly as possible, and turn it over to an emerging Iraqi leadership, mostly from within and those from without who have credibility inside, and allow them to run their country. The longer we stay, the more we will be identified as being occupiers and not liberators. It’s a tough call to make, and you can’t predict at what date on the calendar that call should be made.

A few of you (Don Brouhaha?) may note with some amusement the last name of the author, our former envoy to Syria. Holy miscalculation, Batman!

Posted by Cassandra at November 16, 2006 05:07 AM

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You've summed it up nicely and to the point (are you part of the Iraq Bloggers Study Group? :).

al-Qaeda in Anbar province can cause trouble and strife and murder and mayhem, but Anbar by itself is too poor and too "non-strategic" to truly wreck Iraq.

The Shia south though, is more populous, richer (oil and agriculture), and the Iranians have been plotting this for years (before 2003, for sure). So how do we confront the Iranians short of open war, and halt their subversion of the Iraqi government? How much has al-Maliki, SCIRI and Dawa been subverted (or controlled from the beginning) by Iran? I'm sure that intelligence in the DoD and CIA have some pretty good ideas, but will they act on them??


Posted by: Don Brouhaha at November 16, 2006 08:42 AM

So guess I'm a bit confused. Gen Abizaid stated yesterday in the SASC he doesn't see a need for more combat troops, though perhaps some more to train the Iraqis. Now reportedly the president wants to send more combat troops, up to 20K, there as a plan of his own in advance of the Baker/Hamilton report. Are Abizaid and the president talking and listening to each other?

Who's in charge? Where's Al Haig?

Posted by: jpr at November 16, 2006 10:54 AM

Well, a few observations:

1. First of all, the Guardian article isn't straight from the President's mouth, so we don't know if it is accurate or not. I tend to think it is likely, though I would be extremely surprised if the President sent as many as 20,000 troops.

However, he may well send a smaller number, and what this might well do is free up more people to do what Abizaid DOES want to do - increase the number of teams working with Iraqi troops. You have to pull those people from somewhere, and if you pull them from somewhere, that leaves already shorthanded units even less able to deal with the challenges they are already facing.

One aspect of the hearings that I did not get to was the statement by Abizaid that the most successful thing going over there was the embedding of US advisors with Iraqi troops - he wants to see more of that and views that as our "exit strategy". So anything that frees up more experienced troops to function in that capacity, I would think, is a good thing. Inexperienced people can't move into those roles.

Posted by: Cassandra at November 16, 2006 11:07 AM


2. I think Abizaid is worried about where the people will come from, as we all are.

I think what needs to happen is that, while it's OK for people to speculate (as we're doing) about what may or may not happen, I get a bit annoyed when people jump to conclusions.

The situation over there is fluid and our options aren't exactly limitless, as the Democrats are finding out now that they have to pony up some suggestions. Plus even withdrawal has costs, some of which we may not want to pay.

It struck me over and over again listening to the testimony how many of the "narratives" contradict each other.

For instance, the "boots on the ground and deBaathification" memes.

Warner asked what had to be the world's DUMBEST question. Things are going to hell in a handbasket over there right now supposedly because we don't have enough "boots on the ground".

But then Warner pipes up and says, "B..b...b..but if we send in more troops, won't that just inflame the insurgency against us???? I mean, aren't you guys telling us that that's why they're fighting????"

*crickets chirping*

You can't have it both ways, guys. You can't say if we'd only blanketed Iraq with US troops, the insurgency would never have formed, and then turn around and claim that we have to leave because the US presence is fueling the insurgency! But that's just what Jack Murtha and his smart, smart folks have been saying.

The truth is that it isn't that simple. *Some* Iraqis are pissed that we're there - THE INSURGENTS. But if we don't oppose them they get to overrun the rule of law. Duh. Leaving them to it really isn't the answer - the reason they're fighting is that they won't accept democratic rule and an equal place at the bargaining table - if they would, our troops wouldn't be needed. That won't stop suddenly if we leave - it will only be exacerbated. That's about as smart as saying criminals commit crimes because the police annoy them and they'll stop if the police just stop trying to arrest them.

They're after power, pure and simple. The answer is not to step aside and say, "Here - grab all you want in defiance of the rule of law".

Unless you live in Murtha land.

Posted by: Cassandra at November 16, 2006 11:19 AM

It is a delicate balance, the troop levels. What was the formula used to come to the rough total of ~130 to 150K bog? Making sure there's enough for other worldwide contingencies and all that I can understand, but it would be interesting to see the breakdown of it all.

I'm guessing this number is classified, but I wonder how many of those 130-150K are actual combat units going out & about manning checkpoints and patrols as opposed to those doing combat support, logistics, intel, etc.

Posted by: jpr at November 16, 2006 12:35 PM

My guess is not most, jpr.

I started to say something and then realized that even an extremely general comment is something I don't feel comfortable making. It's not like I know all that much (because I don't) but I probably do not need to be talking about this, given that any small amount of general information I do know comes from talking to my husband and that's not blog fodder.

I just remember reading that most armies are like pyramids - you need a huge number of support and logistics staff to support x number of infantry and we're doing a lot of policing and civil affairs too.

Posted by: Cassandra at November 16, 2006 12:56 PM

Gotcha. Better to err on the side of caution, info-wise.

Posted by: jpr at November 16, 2006 02:20 PM

Cassandra (and fellow readers), I have a related essay at American Spectator online today that you may find interesting:On Forecasting Fratricide in Iraq. All this is somber stuff, to be sure, but I leavened the piece with William Goldman and Shakespeare, and I daresay the mistress of blog named what this one is would approve...

Posted by: Patrick O'Hannigan at November 16, 2006 02:36 PM

Mr O'Hannigan, excellent piece. "Team Bush should have known that as far as inconvenient truths go, the only global warming worth worrying about is the one caused by the rising fires of Islamist intolerance." Amazing.

I'm trying to slog my way through Fisk's "The Great War for Civilization" and it's a tough go. He is very slanted, more so than I realized before I dropped my $$ at Borders. I take a lot of his views with a grain of salt (or two), but a lot of the historical contexts are fascinating.

For me it's just mind bending that there could be so much seemingly endless tit-for-tat blood feud killings. That killing your fellow muslim is one's life goal. In 5 years there'll be no one left. At least no more Sunnis. Perhaps that's the Shiite's 5 year-plan (darkly)??

Posted by: jpr at November 16, 2006 05:22 PM

I read a biography of Saladin (Salah-eh-din, actually), as he united the caliphate and defeated the Third Crusade (Richard the lion-hearted, a Frenchman, although he was King of England, he could hardly speak any English), and ousted the Crusaders in general.
He (Saladin) was, in most ways, a very admirable man.
He did not engage in brutal retribution, was generous with his wealth (died almost a pauper), was generally conciliatory to his conquered enemies, tried to arbitrate between Sunni and Shia, and tried to rule justly and fairly.

He was also a Kurd, not an Arab, which I think is incredibly important.

Various tribes started all kinds of nonsense during his rule, which he generally put down, and also got rid of some really bad "sheiks" who ruled part of what is now modern Iraq, Syria, Egypt, Arabia and the Levant. He ruled it all, at the end.

His kingdom fell apart within a generation due to squabbling over different parts, etc.

It is hard to say whether the Arab culture overides Islam, or Islam overides the general nature of Arab culture. Or whether the two feed off of each other in a kind of self-immolating way.

Posted by: Don Brouhaha at November 16, 2006 05:40 PM

Edward Djerian? Holy Belgravia Dispatch, Batman!

Don't go and slit your wrists before dinner, but is that a coincidence, or not?? :D

Methinks that Mr. O'Hannigan is, unfortunately (and tragically)for all, a little closer to the bloody truth of it all. And I'll betcha that he hasn't served a minute in the US Foreign Service, either.

Posted by: Don Brouhaha at November 17, 2006 03:45 PM

No coincidence, Don :)

Posted by: Cassandra at November 17, 2006 03:58 PM

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