Three pieces of positive news about Iraq today (I hesitate to say "good"...but at least they indicate movement in the right direction) all of which may indicate an impeding and much-needed change of strategy. First, President Bush has announced that the size of the US military needs to be increased. While little details or specifics were discussed, as I wrote about several months ago, the military desperately needs to be increased, even if that increase comes at the expense of several big-ticket toys currently being developed. Furthermore, the US military should work to developing a branch (probably not an entirely new service arm, although given the entrenchment and inertia in the services that may be necessary) devoted to policing and nation building. The deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan are stretching this country's military to the point where the American capability to project power and protect its allies must be questioned. That cannot happen. US military hegemony is vital to the stability of the international system and the benefits reaped by the US far outweigh the costs of expanding the military.
More importantly are two stories that indicate that the US may be moving towards a strategy along the lines of that which I suggested a few weeks ago: focusing on domestic security and challenging the sectarian militias. In a news analysis, the New York Times indicates that the discussion of a short-term troop surge is more a strategic than a tactical move; one that indicates a intention to take on the militias, especially that of Moktada al-Sadr. Furthermore, the Times reports that, on the diplomatic front, Shiite cleric Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani is moving towards accepting a coalition of Shiites, Sunnis, and Kurds to govern Iraq. According to the article:
These are, at a minimum, steps in the right direction. However, care must be taken. Any short-term surge in troops must be exactly that: short-term. While I am often hesitant to employ analogies, one aspect of Vietnam seems clearly relevant here is that the expectation of a long-term US troop presence removed any incentive for the South Vietnamese government to assume responsibility for security on its own (or to deal with its own corruption). Clear and unmistakable goals must be established that will result in the troops coming home in a reasonable (2 years or so, I would think) time frame.
Ayatollah Sistani has grown increasingly distressed as the Shiite-led government has proved incapable of taming the violence and improving public services, Shiite officials say. He now appears to be backing away from his demand that the Shiite bloc play the dominant political role and that it hold together at all costs, Iraqi and Western officials say.
As the effective arbiter of a Shiite role in the planned coalition, the ayatollah is considered critical to the Iraqi and American effort.
American officials have been told by intermediaries that Ayatollah Sistani “has blessed the idea of forming a moderate front,” according to a senior American official. “We wouldn’t have gotten this far without his support.”
Second, the US leadership must prepare itself and the American public for the inevitable results of this new strategy: increased violence. Splitting the Shiite ruling bloc and challenging the militias will lead to much higher and more intense levels of fighting, especially when the US troops take on al-Sadr's Mahdi Brigade directly. Openness and real leadership will be needed from President Bush and newly-installed SecDef Gates to explain the benchmarks for success and the need for this new strategy. Absent that, more aspects of the Vietnam Analogy will no doubt become relevant.
I am not completely pessimistic about the outcome in Iraq. But any lingering hope depends on the brave soldiers of the US armed forces being freed to do their jobs. Only if the rival militias can be tamed and only if all portions of the Iraqi people believe that their futures will be better protected through politics than violence can this project succeed.