THE U.S. occupation of Iraq has reached a dramatic turning point: The costs to America in blood and treasure dictate that a new president from either party will have to take the United States in a dramatically different direction. Admitting privately that there is no Plan B, the current administration appears to have put all its eggs in one basket. U.S. armed forces are implementing a surge of 20,000 in the U.S. troop presence in Iraq. While it could be a step in the right direction, even this "surge and hope" strategy will likely falter soon, as U.S. forces will be unable to clear and hold Baghdad neighborhoods until Iraq's militias are dealt with in a dramatically different way.
But earlier phases of the war bode ill for the current strategy. Tens of billions have already been spent in reconstruction aid, the Maliki government has previously resisted benchmarks and timelines, and similar troop surges have failed in each of the last three years. Furthermore, the condition of Iraqi forces is grim: They cannot be trained more quickly, retain their sectarian loyalties and have proved unreliable in battle. In fact, American commanders have privately concluded that Iraqi troops will not ever be battle-ready in sufficient numbers (though apparently they have not determined that a permanent U.S. troop presence in Iraq will be necessary). Yet in terms of prospects for coalition-force success, it is a formidable challenge to implement counterinsurgency stratagems once an insurgency has fully taken hold; moreover, a cohesive, legitimate government is required for them to succeed. This patently is not the case.
At this stage-with de facto partition in the form of ethnic cleansing already fairly advanced, untamed and amorphous militias meting out substantial destruction and power grabs by the political factions taking the form of a feeding frenzy-the way forward is perilous.
With a variety of alternative strategies on the table, the administration's choice of "surge and hope" will be debated by historians for years to come. Democrats have unveiled a plan for phased withdrawal; Senator Joseph R. Biden (D-DE) and others suggest partitioning Iraq; the International Crisis Group advocates a conference of all international and national political actors; and the Baker-Hamilton Iraq Study Group focuses on diplomacy with Iraq's neighbors.
The problem with these alternatives, however, is clear. With regard to the Baker-Hamilton report, what is most surprising is how unimaginative and unvaried the recommendations were. The sole novel element involved a suggestion to reach out diplomatically to Iran and Syria. However, Iran is riding high in the region and has no incentive to help rein in Shi‘a militias; it would demand that the West desist from its pressure over Iran's nuclear development. Syria would seek a voice in Lebanon again-possibly via Hizballah's presence in government there-and might even demand the return of the Golan Heights.
The other recommendations-train Iraqi forces faster, reposition U.S. forces as soon as possible and begin transferring them home in the near future-remind us of President Bush's devastating retort to Senator John Kerry (D-MA) when the latter unveiled his much-anticipated four-point plan during the presidential debates: "We're already doing that."
In fact, recent talk in the administration about a "post-surge" strategy-what could become an actual Plan B-relates to Baker-Hamilton. In a more fleshed-out form it apparently would incorporate regional diplomacy and benchmarks, along with the additional brigades in and around Baghdad. However, were it to come to fruition its prospect for success is nil-primarily because the emphasis would be again on training Iraqi troops faster to enable the United States to withdraw sooner rather than later.
Alternatively, Democrats in Congress have called for a phased withdrawal. But even with U.S. troops on the ground, the Mahdi Army, the Badr Brigades and others-not to mention Al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia-are preventing Iraq's government and parliament from governing at the most basic level, let alone implementing laws and policies. In fact, there really is no distinct national government; it is fused with the factions and their militias, and will be feckless until they are disbanded. How could such a nominal government fare better?
Perhaps the thinking is that a U.S. withdrawal would allow Iraqis to settle their scores rapidly. Just before the surge strategy was announced, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and his aides were pressing U.S. commanders to withdraw U.S. forces to the perimeter of Baghdad in order to allow the nominally Iraqi forces-in fact, largely Shi‘a partisan ones-to assail predominantly Sunni neighborhoods. This amounts to the most ominous sign to date of the coming all-out civil war were coalition forces to withdraw from the country.
The only other serious plan involves a quasi-partition of the country with Kurds, Sunnis and Shi‘a each running most of their own affairs and sharing oil revenues. The plan presented in these pages by Senator Biden1 rests on the flawed assumption that each ethnic group will be peaceful and united within its own region, which isn't going to happen.
Economic assets have already been regionalized; even those retained by the central government are being divvied up by the factions, allotted on the basis of ethnic-sectarian criteria. As such, despite all the trumpeting by the administration, the oil law recently passed in the Iraqi Parliament will fail to be implemented. More importantly, the factions-political parties combined with their respective militias-will continue to wreak havoc. In each region or new state, minority rights will continue to be trampled and the conflagration merely delayed. Moreover, the Sunni, Shi‘a and Kurdish groups have fully 33 sub-ethnic groups between them; each contain endemic tribal, religious and class divisions-many infused with more vitriol than the divisions we see played out today on the evening news.
For examples of decentralization's consequences, we need only review recent Kurdish history. The two main Kurdish factions-the Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK)-have charmed the West into ignoring internal divisions and buying into the myth that an autonomous Kurdistan is some sort of halcyon democratic haven. In fact, the Kurds are serially divided, having used their pre-war Western no-fly-zone freedom to engage in a bitter civil war that has only been put on hold until they can acquire key northern oilfields. Shi‘a politicians (Hakim versus Sadr, inter alia) and their Sunni counterparts (Ba‘ath Party members versus the rest) seem to be following the Kurdish model-only without the constraints imposed on the Kurds, who are temporarily united in their drive for Kirkuk.
As things stand, each of the alternative plans on the table in Washington will sooner or later falter.
IT IS TOO early to hail the surge as a success, with the Mahdi Army hunkering down in villages north of Baghdad to assess the new force posture of United States and Iraqi forces now deployed in violence-wracked neighborhoods like Sadr City. Each household in Sadr City was given an AK-47 before the Mahdi fighters melted away, and the small ramshackle outposts representing the forward positions of U.S. forces are already rendering them sitting ducks.
More than likely, simply leavening the mix with an additional 20,000 or so American soldiers in Baghdad is not a solution-that is, not unless the militias are politically defanged first. But it is of critical importance for the United States and our allies, as well as the Iraqi people (several hundred thousand of whom have paid with their lives, along with 3,000-plus Americans), to come up with a viable strategy.
Without a strategy that permits the stable reconstruction of the country-and this means coming to terms with the militias-the seemingly inevitable result will be a serious conflagration that could well end with over 600,000 additional Iraqi civilian deaths, a permanently exiled Iraqi middle class, continuing separatist politics in the north and south (with central Iraq as an actual sanctuary for terrorists) and Iran emboldened as the strongest state in the Gulf. The chaos in Iraq will also prompt further Islamization of regional politics, engendering violently contested sectarian disputes involving not only Lebanon, but four U.S. allies as well-Jordan, Egypt, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia. It bears repeating the obvious that this scenario is not in the national-security interests of the United States.
Despite all the justified pessimism, there is a faint yet realistic hope if the United States truly desires to achieve all of its stated objectives concerning Iraq: starting over.
A longer and far more comprehensive occupation-rebuilding Iraq from the ground up-has a better chance of succeeding than all the other plans rolled into one. The only way to escape what is eerily similar to Joseph Heller's original Catch-22 is to adopt a strategy to change Iraq's political culture over the long term, starting with altering the political dynamics for rampaging militias in the short term.Essay Types: Essay