Monday, December 04, 2006

Moving Forward in Iraq

It was an interesting week with regards to Iraq, with President Bush indicating that he plans "significant changes" to the US strategy for reconstructing and stabilizing Iraq, despite doubts as to whether the president will actually be willing to shift course, as well as the anticipation of Wednesday's release of the report from the Iraq Study Group. However, perhaps the most interesting revelation was the release of a memo drafted by former SecDef Donald Rumsfeld, written a few days before his resignation in the wake of the Democratic victory at the polls.

The memo expresses Rumsfeld's doubts about the progress and prospects for success in Iraq, stating that "what US forces are currently doing in Iraq is not working well enough or fast enough." Rumsfeld went on to present a range of options, divided into two categories: Above the Line, and Below the Line, which translate to attractive and viable, and unattractive, respectively.

Some of the more interesting Above the Line options with analysis:

Publicly announce a set of benchmarks agreed to by the Iraqi Government and the U.S. — political, economic and security goals — to chart a path ahead for the Iraqi government and Iraqi people (to get them moving) and for the U.S. public (to reassure them that progress can and is being made).
It's shocking that this hasn't already been done. Absent clearly stated goals no one -- not the Iraqi government, not US policy makers, not the US public -- can truly judge what's going on. We have no idea what is being tried and what isn't, nor what constitutes success. Also, as Somalia and Vietnam taught this country, a clear and achievable exit strategy is a necessity.

Initiate a reverse embeds program, like the Korean Katusas, by putting one or more Iraqi soldiers with every U.S. and possibly Coalition squad, to improve our units’ language capabilities and cultural awareness and to give the Iraqis experience and training with professional U.S. troops.
This is an excellent, and low-cost idea, but again I'm shocked this hasn't been tried yet. Cultural awareness and sensitivity is critical in a war against insurgents that takes place among civilian populations.

Retain high-end SOF capability and necessary support structure to target Al Qaeda, death squads, and Iranians in Iraq, while drawing down all other Coalition forces, except those necessary to provide certain key enablers for the ISF.
This seems to be a recognition of the situation on the ground. This war will not be won, if it can be won, by large military units engaging in set-piece battles. Special Forces are vital, with their mobility and flexibility.

Begin modest withdrawals of U.S. and Coalition forces (start “taking our hand off the bicycle seat”), so Iraqis know they have to pull up their socks, step up and take responsibility for their country.
See above.

Initiate a massive program for unemployed youth. It would have to be run by U.S. forces, since no other organization could do it.
Brilliant. While it's widely accepted that poverty and unemployment doesn't cause terrorism, the conditions created by poverty and hopelessness do. Even more importantly, in the case of a domestic insurgency which is largely spurred by peoples' fear of the future, making that future less bleak could do a lot to undermining the Sunni insurgency.

There are two things most interesting about this list (I left off several recommendations). First: Most of them are quite simple and it's very hard to understand why they haven't already been tried. This just seems to support the claim that Rumsfeld and Bush are/were completely blind to the on-going problems and were refusing to think creatively about the problems in Iraq. I'm not saying that any one of these recommendations is a silver bullet that will end the insurgency, but they are all worth trying, and seem to be fairly low-cost and low-risk.

Most interesting is one not on the list, but one that seems to me to be the most important: Using US military might to rein in and/or destroy the extra-governmental militias operating in Iraq. While in the early days after the invasion, much of the insurgency was led by foreigners operating through or in coordination with al Qaeda, now the majority of violence seems to be carried out by Sunnis who are, understandably, fearful of their futures in an Iraq run by a Shiite-Kurd government.

Between death squads being run out of Iraqi military and police units and Shiite militias such as the Mahdi Army of Moktada al-Sadr and the Badr Brigade, it's pretty hard to be a Sunni in Iraq these days. According to the Council on Foreign Relations (link above), "Whereas in 2004 and 2005, these militia groups primarily targeted ex-Baathists, rival militia groups, or U.S. troops, now they target everyday Iraqis based on their ethno-religious sect." The militias are highly popular among those that they protect as they provide security and social services, and both the US and the Iraqi government have proven unwilling to take them on directly (with a few exceptions such as in Fallujah), as many of the militias are extremely well-armed.

Perhaps the most important step the US could take would be to directly attack these militias. If the insurgency is to be co-opted and the government to succeed, Sunnis must come to believe that they can be protected and their interests advanced by the Iraqi government. The Iraqi government cannot do that if it's authority is undermined by numerous armed groups operating in country. As Lebanon learned this summer, a government that does not enjoy a monopoly of force within its borders is in for trouble.

If the US is serious about trying to "win" in Iraq, it must challenge these militias. The US should commit to a short-term increase in manpower, during which it should demand the disarmament of all extra-governmental armed groups. Any group that refuses to do so, be it Shiite, Kurd, or Sunni must be attacked head-on and destroyed.

Of course, disarming or destroying these militias, especially the Kurdish peshmerga will be difficult and unpopular, to put it mildly. Also, a group that has lost its protective militia will be exposed to the predations of others. This would be no easy task for the US. But if there is to be any hope of building a stable Iraqi government, it is a step that must be taken.

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